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In Hitler's Shadow

From In Hitler's Shadow, Chapter 4:

Rabbi Abraham Cooper cradled the telephone in his office in Los Angeles. He sat quietly for a moment, thinking. Then he picked up the phone again and punched the number of an extension on the floor below. "Is he in?" he said. "Then, "Have you got a minute? I've got something interesting."

The wall beside him rattled with a burst of laughter. The adjoining room was filled with students of the yeshiva that shared the building with the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The center had outgrown the yeshiva that Cooper had helped found when he came to Los Angeles from Vancouver with Rabbi Marvin Hier in 1977 as a young man of twenty-seven. It had practically outgrown the building on Wet Pico Boulevard.

Classrooms and offices stood side by side within, engulfed by the comings and goings of students and the harried staff. Cooper walked down the dingy hall and descended an open staircase through the atrium-like lobby to the first floor. Two white-shirted young men rushed toward him, deep in a discussion about grades, fringes of their tzitziot flapping at their waists. He let them pass, and entered Hier's office.

Hier looked up, his face alive with curiosity. He was the Wiesenthal Center's founder and dean. The center existed in his image, which was single-minded and insistent. It carried on the work of its namesake, the baggy-eyed Viennese architect and Holocaust survivor who was legendary for tracking down hundreds of Nazi war criminals. The center also was an international gadfly that monitored anti-Semitism throughout the world. Its job, according to its mailings, was "like that of a forest-fire spotter who scans the far horizon for telltale wisps of smoke." Spotting the evidence, the center would create publicity, rouse public opinion, lobby politicians, whatever it took to call attention to the problem. Such loud activism was part of the mandate laid down by Wiesenthal in exchange for his good name. One of the center's first acts was assembling a lobbying blitz against a proposed West German statute on limitations on Nazi war crimes. The legislation was defeated.

"What?" said Hier. Even in the single syllable, his voice was gravelly and redolent of New York's Lower East Side and the Jewish tenement and street life that began there in a wave of turn-of-the-century immigration. Hier's parents came from Poland; his father worked as a lamp polisher after arriving in New York in 1917. When Hier was born, in 1939, the old tenements were closed but a large community of observant Jews remained. He grew up among thread shops and kosher delicatessens and attended the oldest parochial school yeshiva in the country. Rabbi Jacob Joseph, located on Henry Street, where he was ordained in 1962. It was a hamische neighborhood, warm, family-like, comfortable. But he abandoned it soon after ordination. At twenty-two, with a nineteen-year-old wife, the new rabbi left to serve the small Jewish community in Vancouver, British Columbia. They stayed for fifteen years and had two children. When he outgrew Vancouver, Hier, with his family, headed south to Los Angeles to start a small yeshiva and museum that grew into the Wiesenthal Center.

Large, squarish, gold-rimmed bifocals sat on the crest of his nose as he waited to hear what Cooper had to say. His face was elfin; his eyes were permanently crinkled at the corners in an attitude of mirth, and if he were a child you'd start looking for a match in the toe of your shoe. But it was a mistake to take Hier any way but seriously.

"I just had a call from Mark Seal at the JTA in New York," Cooper said. "The Jewish Telegraphic Agency was the international Jewish wire service. "He has a guy he says we should meet, a journalist who came to him with an idea for a story."

"What's the story?" Hier asked.

"He was in Germany doing something else, and he met some neo-Nazis. He thinks he can find out more about them."