Simon Wiesenthal (born 1908) was a Ukrainian Jew caught in the horrors of World War II. Having lost most of his family to the death camps of the Holocaust, he spent the years following the war tracking down and seeking the conviction of Nazi war criminals.
Simon Wiesenthal was born on December 31, 1908, in what is now the Lvov section of the Ukraine. Turned away from higher educational opportunities at home because of a strict anti-Jewish quota system, he attended the Technical University of Prague. There he received his degree in architectural engineering in 1932. He married Cyla Muller in 1936 and the young couple set out to establish their life together in Lvov. However, like millions of his fellow Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, Simon Wiesenthal's life was to be traumatized by the policies of the two most notorious dictators of the 20th century: Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler.
At the outset of World War II in 1939, the Soviet Union occupied the Lvov region. The Russians immediately set out to purge society of its "bourgeois" elements. The results were devastating for the Wiesenthal family. Simon's step-father was arrested by the Soviet secret police and eventually died in prison. His stepmother was shot. Wiesenthal was forced to close his architecture business and barely avoided deportation to Siberia.
Life Under Nazi Rule
When the Germans displaced the Soviets in 1941, Wiesenthal escaped execution through the intervention of a former employer who was collaborating with the Nazis. But he was sent to the Janowska concentration camp. Later both he and his wife were assigned to a forced labor camp, where inmates worked servicing and repairing Lvov's Eastern Railroad. Compared to other Jews, those in the Ostbahn work camp were treated humanely by its German director, who did not adhere to the murderous anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis.
After invading the Soviet Union, Germany executed over 1.5 million civilians, mostly Jews, in captured Soviet territory. In the late summer and fall of 1942, Wiesenthal's mother, along with most of his and Cyla's relatives, were deported and murdered. In all, 89 members of their families perished in the Holocaust. In late 1942 Wiesenthal secured his wife's safety by persuading the Polish underground to provide her with "Aryan" papers identifying her as "Irene Kowalska." She lived in Warsaw and later was a forced laborer in Germany, but her true identity was never revealed.
The "island of sanity," as Wiesenthal described the Ostbahn camp, crumbled in late 1943. Wiesenthal escaped before the camp was liquidated, but was detained again in June 1944 at Janowska. As the Eastern Front moved closer to Lvov, 200 retreating Nazi SS guards took Wiesenthal and 33 other prisoners westward, the only survivors of an original camp population of 149,000. Eventually, the few survivors were brought to the infamous Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. There, on May 5, 1945, Wiesenthal, little more than a 90-pound skeleton, was liberated by a U.S. Army armored unit.
Becoming a Nazi Hunter
As his health and strength were restored, Wiesenthal began to help the war crimes section of the American army pursue Nazi war criminals. At the end of 1945 Simon was reunited with his wife, whom he thought had long since died.
In 1947, after working for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services and Army Counter Intelligence Corps, Wiesenthal headed the Jewish Central Committee of the U.S. Zone of Austria, a relief and welfare organization for Holocaust survivors.
When reflecting back on his initial period of "Nazi hunting," Wiesenthal said he never thought that gathering and preparing evidence on Nazi atrocities would occupy him all his life. "I assumed that the Allied governments and free nations of Europe would mount a serious effort to ferret out the estimated 150,000 criminals who committed crimes against humanity' as part of Germany's Final Solution of the Jewish Problem,"' he said. But the Cold War rapidly became the focus of the former Allies, and many war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, and Klaus Barbie, escaped to South America.
Wiesenthal and 30 volunteers established the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz, Austria, to gather data for future trials. By 1954 the frustrations of the staff over the inaction and apathy of world governments led Wiesenthal to close the center. Its documents were sent to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel, except the dossier on Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the blueprint used to destroy six million Jews. It was the one case which continued to interest Wiesenthal throughout the 1950s, even as he worked for refugee relief and welfare agencies. Eichmann was eventually located, kidnapped by Israeli agents, tried, and hanged in Israel. Wiesenthal characterized the hunt for Eichmann as a "mosaic to which many contributed," including himself.
Buoyed by the renewed interest in Nazi war criminals which the Eichmann trial generated, Wiesenthal reopened the Jewish Documentation Center, this time in Vienna. By the end of the 1960s "Holocaust deniers" and neo-Nazis had launched an intensive propaganda campaign to whitewash the crimes of the Nazi era. Dutch fascists attacked the Diary of Anne Frank as a hoax, claiming that Anne Frank never had lived. That lie was exposed by Wiesenthal in 1963, when he located and confronted Karl Silberbauer, who was then serving as a police inspector of Austria. Silberbauer confessed, saying, "Yes, I arrested Anne Frank."
Wiesenthal's efforts also helped bring to trial in 1966 in Stuttgart, West Germany, nine major SS participants in the mass murder of Jews in his native region of Lvov. In 1967 Wiesenthal tracked down Franz Stengl, the commandant of two of the most notorious death camps, Treblinka and Sobibor, who was hiding in Brazil. He was extradited to West Germany for trial. Other major criminals apprehended through his efforts included Franz Murer, the "Butcher of Wilno," and Erich Rajakowitsch, who was in charge of transporting Jews from Holland to Nazi death camps.
Conscience for the World
During one of his earliest visits to the United States, Wiesenthal revealed that Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, a murderer of several hundred children at Majdanek, was living in Queens, New York. It took several years, but in 1973 she was returned to Germany, tried, and jailed. Through the efforts of Weisenthal and others, Americans were confronted with the fact that the United States had become a haven for thousands of Nazi criminals. As a result, in the late 1970s the U.S. Department of Justice established a special office to identify and deal with Nazi war criminals.
The most notorious criminal pursued by Simon Wiesenthal since Eichmann was Josef Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz doctor wanted for the murder of 200,000 to 400,000 people. For many years Wiesenthal was the only public figure to raise the issue of Mengele's continued freedom in South America. In 1979 he led the successful effort to pressure Paraguay into revoking Mengele's citizenship. In June 1985 came the startling revelation that Mengele had lived since 1961 as a recluse in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and had apparently died in 1979. After receiving reports from forensic experts, Wiesenthal concluded that Mengele had died. "Although I know there is no proper man-made punishment for Mengele, it is unfortunate that his crippled victims could not face him in a court of law," Wiesenthal said. "But God has chosen to close the case."
Although Wiesenthal fought a lonely battle for many years in helping to bring more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals to justice, he touched the lives of millions of people throughout the world through his writings, lecture tours, and meetings with world leaders. Nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesenthal was decorated by the Austrian and French resistance movements and received the Dutch and Luxembourg Medals of Freedom, the Diploma of Honor from the United Nations, and many other awards. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter presented him with the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor on behalf of the American people.
In 1977, in recognition of his humanitarian work, the Simon Wiesenthal Center was established in Los Angeles. It became the largest institution in North America dedicated to the study of the Holocaust and its contemporary implications. In 1988 a made-for-TV movie of Wiesenthal's 1967 autobiography The Murderers Among Us was produced, with Ben Kingsley playing Wiesenthal.
Asked why he maintained his efforts to track down Nazis all his life, Wiesenthal said, "I believe in a world to come … When confronted by the martyred millions … I will be able to say … 'I did not forget you."'
Further Reading on Simon Wiesenthal
Wiesenthal's account of the unpunished war criminals is told in his The Murderers Among Us (1967), edited by Joseph Wechsberg. In The Sunflower (1970; revised edition, 1997) Wiesenthal deals with individual responsibility, justice, revenge, and repentance. His Max and Helen (1982) is about the lives of survivors of the Holocaust and the impact on their offspring. He told the plight of the Jews under Hitler in Every Day Remembrance Day (1987) and retold his own story in Justice, Not Vengeance (1990). In a lighter vein he wrote a historical detective novel about Christopher Columbus titled Sails of Hope (1973). For additional information on Wiesenthal, see Iris Noble, Nazi Hunter, Simon Wiesenthal (1979) and Lydia C. Triantopolus, Simon Wiesenthal: The Man and His Legacy (1983).