Wiesenthal, Simon 1908–2005

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Wiesenthal, Simon 1908–2005

OBITUARY NOTICE—See index for CA sketch: Born December 31, 1908, in Buczacz, Galicia (now Ukraine); died September 20, 2005, in Vienna, Austria. Activist and author. A survivor of the Jewish Holocaust, Wiesenthal made it his life's mission to locate and bring to justice former German Nazis who had scattered across the globe. He was born in a town that was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his father was killed in 1915 while serving in the Austrian army. The Wiesenthal family was repeatedly endangered by cossack attacks against the Jews, and in one incident Simon was stabbed by a cossack. He experienced more prejudice as a student when he was denied entrance to the Polytechnic Institute in Lvov because the school would only accept a small number of Jewish students. Wiesenthal thus attended Technical University in Prague, where he completed a degree in architectural engineering in 1932. He was beginning his career in architecture in Lvov when the Russian Army occupied the town in 1939. Several of Wiesenthal's family members were either killed or imprisoned, and he found himself forced to work as a mechanic at a bed spring factory. Two years later the Germans invaded and Wiesenthal and his wife were sent to a forced labor camp. By 1942, when the Nazi's "Final Solution" was in full effect, he and his wife lost dozens of family members. The couple was separated that year. In 1943 he briefly escaped the camp only to be imprisoned again. Wiesenthal became so despondent that he attempted suicide twice, but eventually, in May of 1945, he was liberated by the Americans. After being reunited with his wife and recovering from near starvation he began, in 1945, working for the U.S. Army's War Crimes Section, gathering evidence against war criminals. His work continued in the early post-war years as he was employed by the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA) and then became head of the Jewish Central Committee of the United States. In 1947 Wiesenthal established the Jewish Documentation Center in Linz, Austria. However, when the cold war began, interest in capturing Nazis diminished. Not only were the United States and the Soviet Union more concerned about the arms race than capturing Germans, they were actually employing former Nazis in their espionage efforts. The Linz center closed in 1954, but Wiesenthal continued his work. Over the course of the next five decades, he relentlessly pursued leads to find former Nazis, establishing a network of informants. Through his efforts, he was credited with locating such war criminals as former Gestapo leader Klaus Barbie, Gestapo aide Karl Silberbauer, concentration camp commandant Franz Stangl, and Iron Guard leader Valerian D. Trifa. However, Wiesenthal also claimed he was responsible for finding Adolf Eichmann, the man who organized Hitler's final solution. Wiesenthal took credit for what many would later agree was the result of Israeli Mossad chief Isser Harel's work. He also said that he was in pursuit of the infamous doctor and Nazi collaborator Josef Mengele, but later admitted that Mengele had drowned while living in Brazil. Because of incidents such as these, some criticized Wiesenthal for grandstanding and taking more credit than was his due. Despite such controversies, few would question Wiesenthal's call for justice against Nazi war criminals, as well as his conviction that the world should never forget the victims of the Holocaust. The recipient of numerous awards for his work, Wiesenthal was also honored when the Holocaust study center in Los Angeles was named after him. Many of his books were written in German, though some are available in English, including The Murderers among Us: The Wiesenthal Memoirs (1967), which was adapted as a television documentary for HBO in 1989, and Every Day a Remembrance Day: A Chronicle of Jewish Martyrdom (1987).



Wiesenthal, Simon, The Murderers among Us: The Wiesenthal Memoirs, McGraw, 1967.


Chicago Tribune, September 21, 2005, section 1, pp. 1, 14.

Los Angeles Times, September 21, 2005, pp. A1, A13.

New York Times, September 21, 2005, pp. A1, C18.

Times (London, England), September 21, 2005, p. 67.