Wiesenthal died in his sleep at his home in Vienna, his office announced Tuesday. Working with a small staff from his cramped three-room office, Wiesenthal sifted through tens of thousands of documents and followed countless leads, compiling archives that helped bring some 1,100 Nazi criminals to justice.
“Simon Wiesenthal was the conscience of the Holocaust,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. The center, named for Wiesenthal, came to embody the thrust of his work as a Jewish human rights organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust by fostering tolerance and understanding.
Officials at the center pledged this week to continue Wiesenthal’s work and also to maintain his legacy. Hier said he last spoke with Wiesenthal only two weeks ago. An exhibit on the Nazi hunter’s life has been set up at the center’s sister organization, the Museum of Tolerance, where a memorial service also is planned for next week.
Wiesenthal “was a hero who carried the torch of justice at a time when there was a paralysis of conscience over responsibility for the Holocaust,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and himself a Holocaust survivor. “No Nazi war criminal, big or small, was able to rest peacefully because he never knew when Wiesenthal’s voice of moral outrage would find him.... He brought a measure of justice to the 6 million victims of the Nazi genocide,” Foxman said.
Wiesenthal devoted more than half a century to tracking escaped Nazi war criminals. He and his wife lost 89 members of their families in the Holocaust.
“When the Holocaust ended in 1945 and the whole world went home to forget, he alone remained behind to remember,” Hier said. “He became the permanent representative of the victims, determined to bring the perpetrators of the history’s greatest crime to justice. There was no press conference and no president or prime minister or world leader announced his appointment. He just took the job. It was a job no one else wanted.”
“Justice Not Vengeance,” which was the title of Wiesenthal’s autobiography, became his motto and guiding principle for a commitment he considered unending.
“Survival is a privilege which entails obligations,” he wrote in the 1990 autobiography. “I am forever asking myself what I can do for those who have not survived. The answer I have found for myself (and which need not necessarily be the answer for every survivor) is: I want to be their mouthpiece, I want to keep their memory alive, to make sure the dead live on in that memory.”
Wiesenthal was best known, perhaps, for his role in tracking down Adolf Eichmann, the Gestapo technocrat who had supervised the implementation of the “Final Solution.” Wiesenthal helped trace Eichmann to Argentina, where he was abducted by Israeli agents in 1960. Eichmann was tried in Israel in 1961, convicted of war crimes and hanged for his role in the slaughter of 6 million Jews.
Though Wiesenthal had begun gathering and preparing evidence on Nazi atrocities for the War Crimes Section of the U.S. Army immediately after World War II, it was the success in bringing Eichmann to justice that prompted him to open his Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna and devote his life to hunting war criminals.
Among other high-profile fugitives he helped find were Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer who arrested Anne Frank, and Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor concentration camps in Poland, whom Wiesenthal helped locate in Brazil.
Over the decades he also spoke out loudly against neo-Nazism and racism.
“The only value of nearly five decades of my work is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow that they will never rest,” he said in 1994. His prominent public stand sparked death threats and hate mail. In 1982, neo-Nazis left a bomb on his doorstep.
Although he maintained his office and staff in Vienna, Wiesenthal recently created something of a stir when he said that his work hunting Nazis was over. That’s not the position of the Wiesenthal Center, which Simon Wiesenthal did not direct. The center is still aiding international efforts to track down any last Nazi-era war criminals who could still be brought to justice. This month, a Spanish police unit was searching for one of the most-wanted figures still at large. A Spanish national police spokesman said new evidence points to the possibility that Aribert Heim, 91, may be living undercover somewhere near the Mediterranean coastal city of Alicante.
The Wiesenthal Center ranks Heim as the No. 2 most wanted Nazi war criminal, after Alois Brunner, an aide to Eichmann. During World War II, Heim murdered hundreds of people, largely via lethal injection, at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
But there’s no question that the job of tracking down living Nazi war criminals is timing out.
“I found the mass murderers I was looking for, and I have outlived all of them,” Wiesenthal said. “If there’s a few I didn’t look for, they are now too old and fragile to stand trial. My work is done,” he told an Austrian magazine.
Leaders around Los Angeles and world this week said that Wiesenthal’s work would have lasting, universal impact well beyond its value to Jews around the world.
“He never restricted the genocide numbers to 6 million and he always insisted that people remember that Jews were not the only ones who were exterminated,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, who himself has worked to highlight Christians who rescued Jews in the Holocaust. Wiesenthal “felt it was important that people were accountable, that you simply don’t escape into the air and conceal your crimes and your obscenities.”
Though Wiesenthal’s zeal for justice was unflagging, Schulweis said, “he was not a man of vindictiveness. He was not vindictive.”
Schulweis said he had the honor of meeting Wiesenthal twice. In person, the man projected humility. He was “certainly not the Jewish Sherlock Holmes. There was something very modest. He was not concerned with solving any crimes to show how bright he was, but so that the killers of a dream should be brought to justice.”
California’s Austrian-born Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said that he and his wife “are deeply saddened at the passing of our great friend. Simon was a lion of a man, a survivor and a conqueror, a hero in every sense of the word. Simon turned the tables on the Nazi torturers and tormentors. Though he often seemed alone in its pursuit, he did not falter and he never wavered from his goal.... I will always be grateful that I knew one of the greatest men of our time.”
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II knighted Wiesenthal last year, one in a long series of international honors testifying to the power and importance of his often uphill and once solitary battle.
“The extraordinary thing about Simon Wiesenthal is how little help he had, and how few resources, just a long memory and tremendous determination,” said John Macgregor, Britain’s ambassador to Austria, on the occasion of the knighthood.
Announcing the award, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw praised Wiesenthal’s “untiring service to the Jewish communities in the U.K. and elsewhere by helping to right at least some of the awful wrongs of the Holocaust.”
“If there is one name which symbolizes this vital coming to terms with the past it is Simon Wiesenthal’s,” Straw said.
Lord Greville Janner, chairman of Britain’s Holocaust Educational Trust, said at the time that “no one in this world deserves it more than he.”
Wiesenthal was born on New Year’s Eve, 1908, in the town of Buczacz, now in Ukraine. He became an architect, married Cyla Mueller in 1936 and worked in an architectural office in Lvov.
After suffering under anti-Jewish purges following the nonaggression pact signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939, both Wiesenthal and his wife were separated during the war and each barely survived the Holocaust before reuniting. They remained a devoted couple until Cyla Wiesenthal’s death in November 2003. Indeed, part of Simon Wiesenthal’s life story was a love story.
“Everyone who knew them at 17 had no doubt that the tall, dark Simon Wiesenthal and small, fair Cyla Mueller — so obviously besotted with each other — would one day marry,” Alison Leslie Gold wrote in “Fiet’s Vase and Other Stories of Survival: Europe 1939-1945,” which was published in 2003.
In 1941, invading Germans forced the Wiesenthals and other Jews into a ghetto, Gold wrote. “In fall of 1941, they were abruptly separated — without time for a real parting — and forced onto separate trucks, he with men, she with women.”
Early in 1942, the Nazi hierarchy formally decided on the “Final Solution,” the regime’s decision to exterminate all Jews. Throughout occupied Europe the genocide machine was put into operation. In August 1942, Wiesenthal’s mother was sent to the Belzec death camp. By September, most of his and his wife’s relatives were dead.
The Wiesenthals were deported to a newly built concentration camp — Janwska, then later transferred to a forced-labor camp in the same city. Wiesenthal realized that the Germans were targeting women and children, so he made plans to get his wife out. In exchange for maps and plans needed to blow up railroad yards and junctions, Gold said, Wiesenthal was able to obtain forged papers for Cyla, who was given a new identity as a Polish woman. She moved to Lublin and later to Warsaw.
She lived under the name Irena Kowalska in Warsaw for two years and later worked in Germany’s Rhineland region as a forced laborer without her true identity being discovered. Her blond hair helped her pass as a non-Jewish Pole.
The British liberated her from a labor camp in Solingen, Germany, in April 1945.
Wiesenthal escaped from the Ostbahn camp in October 1943, just before the Germans began liquidating all the inmates. In June 1944, he was recaptured and sent back to Janwska where he would almost certainly have been killed had the German eastern front not collapsed under the advancing Red Army. Knowing they would be sent into combat if they had no prisoners to justify their rear-echelon assignment, the SS guards at Janwska decided to keep the few remaining inmates alive. With 34 prisoners out of an original 149,000, the 200 guards joined the general retreat westward, picking up the entire population of the village of Chelmiec along the way to adjust the prisoner-guard ratio.
Few of the prisoners survived the westward trek through Plaszow, Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald, which ended at Mauthausen in upper Austria. Weighing less than 100 pounds and lying helplessly in a barracks where the stench was so strong that even hardboiled SS guards would not enter, Wiesenthal was barely alive when Mauthausen was liberated by an American armored unit on May 5, 1945.
By then, Simon and Cyla each had been told by friends that the other was dead.
“I had no hope my wife was alive,” Wiesenthal told Gold. “When I thought of her, I thought of her body lying under a heap of rubble and I wondered whether they had found the bodies and buried her.”
It was at that point that Wiesenthal began gathering information about Nazi war crimes. Through a series of coincidences, the couple was reunited in Linz, Austria. Both called the reunion a miracle.
The Wiesenthals settled in Vienna and had a daughter, Pauline, in 1946.
Wiesenthal’s Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna was a nondescript, sparsely furnished three-room office with a staff of four, including Wiesenthal. Contrary to popular belief and to some dramatic films based loosely on his life, Wiesenthal did not usually track down Nazi fugitives himself. His chief task was gathering and analyzing information. In that work he was aided by a vast, informal, international network of friends, colleagues and sympathizers, including German World War II veterans, appalled by the horrors they’d witnessed. He even received tips from former Nazis with grudges against other former Nazis. A special branch of his Vienna office documents the activities of right-wing groups, neo-Nazis and similar organizations.
Wiesenthal was never a man who looked only at the past. He always perceived his mission as larger than helping Jews and the victims of yesterday.
“For your benefit, learn from our tragedy,” he said. “It is not a written law that the next victims must be Jews. It can also be other people. We saw it begin in Germany with Jews, but people from more than 20 other nations were also murdered. When I started this work, I said to myself, ‘I will look for the murderers of all the victims, not only the Jewish victims. I will fight for justice.’”
He once told the Jerusalem Post: “The only value of nearly five decades of my work is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow, that they will never rest.”