Wiesenthal, Simon

views updated May 29 2018

Wiesenthal, Simon

[DECEMBER 31, 1908–]

Polish humanitarian

Born in 1908, in Buczacz, Galicia (in the Polish Ukraine), Simon Wiesenthal was raised in a typical shtetl (small Jewish town) environment. The family moved to Lvov, Vienna, and finally back to Buczacz. Wiesenthal continued his education in Prague, where he was trained as an architect. Leaving school in 1932, Wiesenthal returned to Lvov, where he married Cyla Muller in 1936 and, due to anti-Semitism, only received the formal degree of architectural engineer in 1939. In the wake of the nonaggression pact between the Nazis and the communists in 1939, the Russians took over Lvov, and Wiesenthal was no longer allowed to practice his profession.

On June 28, 1941, the Nazis occupied Lvov, and Wiesenthal and his family were swept up in the Nazi occupation. Wiesenthal went through a series of concentration camps, including Gross-Rosen, Janowska, Buchenwald, and finally Mauthausen, in Austria, from which the U.S. Army liberated him on May 5, 1945. Shortly thereafter he was reunited with his wife, who was the only other member of their extended families to survive, and in 1946 their only child, a daughter, was born.


Wiesenthal began his postwar career by aiding the U.S. war crimes investigators in the immediate aftermath of liberation. In May 1945 he submitted his first extensive list of Nazis perpetrators to the U.S. authorities, and joined their team as an investigator and translator. The onset of the cold war between the Western countries and the Soviet Union caused the United States and the other Western Allies to turn away from the pursuit and judgment of Nazis, by either ignoring them or using them as either scientific or intelligence assets. (This was true of the Soviet Union and other Communist bloc countries as well.) By 1947 the U.S. Army had begun to abandon the effort, but using files that had been collected by the army, Wiesenthal opened the first Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz. He maintained this center until 1954, when he closed it down due to the lack of interest and support, sending his files to Yad Vashem, Israel's center for Holocaust study and commemoration. For the next few years Wiesenthal worked as a journalist and with refugee agencies.

The trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961 brought both Wiesenthal and the pursuit of Nazis back into the limelight. While many people have claimed full credit for the capture, Wiesenthal's contribution of persistent tracking and important information greatly helped the Israeli operation. The question of credit for the capture has remained one of the major controversies associated with Wiesenthal throughout his career, with Mossad chief Isser Harel claiming sole responsibility and denying Wiesenthal any credit for the capture. Despite Harel's position, historians believe that Wiesenthal did contribute to the effort of tracking and capturing Eichmann, particularly by keeping the effort going until the Israelis became involved.

As a result of this renewed interest, Wiesenthal decided to move to Vienna and to reopen his Documentation Center there. Continuing to work independently, he became famous as the world's leading Nazi-hunter. Over the next decades he investigated and helped bring to justice over one thousand Nazi war criminals. Some of the more prominent cases included Franz Stangl, the commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka, Franz Murer, commandant of the Vilna ghetto, Karl Silberbauer, the policeman who arrested Anne Frank, Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, the former Majdanek guard who was located in the Unites States, thus publicizing the presence of Nazi war criminals in the United States and Eduard Roschmann, second in command of the Riga ghetto.

From the early stages of his postwar career, Wiesenthal spoke up for other groups, not only Jews. In the 1950s he began to speak about the fate of the Roma and Sinti under the Nazis, and has continued to draw attention to their persecution in Europe. He also spoke out on behalf of other threatened groups such as the Cambodians under Pol Pot and the Kurds. He championed the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, and helped draw the world's attention to the fate of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved Jews during the Holocaust and vanished after being arrested by the Soviets in 1945.

Prolific Author

Wiesenthal has been a prolific author over the years. Among his most significant works are The Murderers Among Us (1967), which interweaves chapters describing Wiesenthal's life and beliefs with those describing his pursuit of specific Nazis; The Sunflower (1970, 1998), which is a symposium on forgiveness with responses from major thinkers; Every Day Remembrance Day (1987), a calendar of anti-Semitism throughout Jewish history; and a last volume of memoirs, Justice Not Vengeance (1989). His other books include Sails of Hope, which deals with the theory of Christopher Columbus' supposed Jewish ancestry, as well as other works related to the Holocaust. In 1989 The Murders Among Us was made into a major television film starring Ben Kingsley. Johanna Heer and Werner Schmiedel's acclaimed documentary about Wiesenthal, The Art of Remembrance, appeared in 1997. Wiesenthal has been the subject of many books, particularly the biography by Hella Pick, Simon Wiesenthal: A Life in Search of Justice (1996) and Alan Levy's The Wiesenthal File (1993).


Wiesenthal's career has been marked by some significant controversies. From 1970 to 1990 there was an ongoing bitter feud with Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. The feud was connected to Austrian politics, Israel, and Jewish identity. Kreisky, who was an assimilated Jew, accused Wiesenthal of surviving the war by collaborating with the Nazis. After a series of lawsuits, Wiesenthal finally won a judgment of slander against Kreisky, who died shortly after. This controversy was later dwarfed by the Waldheim affair. In 1986 the World Jewish Congress (WJC) launched a public relations campaign aimed at convincing Austrians (and the world) that former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim was a Nazi war-criminal and unfit to be elected as president of Austria. Wiesenthal reacted cautiously and, while agreeing that Waldheim had lied and covered up his wartime activities, refused to label him a war criminal without specific proof that would hold up in a court of law. The WJC reacted angrily, and viciously attacked Wiesenthal, who refused to back down. Ultimately Waldheim was elected, Wiesenthal called for his resignation, the United States placed Waldheim on its "watch list" (preventing him from entering the country), and the bitter feelings between Wiesenthal and the WJC lingered.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center

In 1977 the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles was founded by Rabbi Marvin Hier to continue Wiesenthal's work. The Center has offices in New York, Miami, Toronto, Jerusalem, Paris, and Buenos Aires. The innovative Museum of Tolerance was opened in Los Angeles in 1993, the New York Tolerance Center in 2004, and the Center for Human Dignity is planned by the Wiesenthal Center for Jerusalem. The Center's agenda mirrors that of Wiesenthal, being involved in campaigns against Nazi war criminals, current anti-Semitic and other extremist activities, particularly on the Internet, and human rights issues in general. Its film division has produced a number of documentaries, including two Academy Award–winning films, (Genocide in 1981 and The Long Way Home in 1997), and its publications include Genocide: Critical Issues of the Holocaust (1983), The Simon Wiesenthal Center Annual (1984–1990), and Dismantling the Big Lie: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. While the Center bears Wiesenthal's name and has acted in association with Wiesenthal, both Wiesenthal and the Center maintain the right to act independently of each other.

Wiesenthal's Legacy

Over the course of his long career Wiesenthal has received many honors, including the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal (1980) and Presidential Medal of Freedom (2000), French Legion of Honor (1986), Great Medal of Merit (Germany, 1985), Erasmus Prize (Amsterdam, 1992), and he was named an honorary citizen of Vienna in 1995. In 2004 Wiesenthal was awarded an honorary knighthood (KBE) by Queen Elizabeth of England.

Wiesenthal's accomplishments go beyond the honors he has accumulated. They include being the inspiration of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which in 2004 had close to a half-million members worldwide, and is one of the leading Jewish human rights organizations in the world. For the first two decades after the Holocaust, his was essentially the only voice that kept the memory of that period alive for the public, particularly in Europe, and especially in the countries where National Socialism and the Holocaust originated. For the survivors and for many Jews who were born after the war he became the symbol of a new Jewish resolve to no longer be passive, thus overcoming the guilt associated with the claim that Jews were led "like sheep to the slaughter." His resolve to avoid revenge and to focus on bringing the Nazis to justice served as an affirmation of the legal process and earned him international respect. Wiesenthal's persistent efforts, against determined opposition, eventually helped lead to the creation of Nazi hunting units in various countries including the United States, and also helped to normalize the concept of governmental action against war criminals. War crimes tribunals, such as those dealing with the genocides of Bosnia and Rwanda, might not have occurred had Wiesenthal not kept the pursuit of Nazi war criminals on the world's agenda for so long. By fighting to keep the memories of the victims alive and to bring justice to their killers, however delayed, he managed to help change the world's reactions to genocide and war crimes.

SEE ALSO Holocaust; Prosecution; Psychology of Victims


Levy, Alan (1993). The Wiesenthal File. London: Constable.

Wiesenthal, Simon (1967). The Murderers among Us, ed. Joseph Wechsberg. London: Heinemann.

Wiesenthal, Simon (1970). The Sunflower, tran. H. A. Piehler. London: W. H. Allen.

Wiesenthal, Simon (1982). Max and Helen: A Remarkable True Love Story. New York: William Morrow.

Wiesenthal, Simon (1987). Every Day Remembrance Day: A Chronicle of Jewish Martyrdom. New York: Henry Holt.

Wiesenthal, Simon (1989). Justice, Not Vengeance. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Mark Weitzman

Simon Wiesenthal

views updated May 21 2018

Simon Wiesenthal

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.

Wartime Horrors

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

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). □

Wiesenthal, Simon

views updated May 18 2018


Nationality: Austrian (originally Austro-Hungarian). Born: Buczacz, Galicia, 31 December 1908. Education: Technical University, Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1929-32, architectural engineering degree 1932. Family: Married Cyla Muller in 1936; one daughter. Career: Practicing architect in Lvov, Poland, 1936-39; mechanic, bedspring factory, Lvov, 1939-41; arrested and imprisoned in Nazi forced labor and concentration camps, 1941-45; worked for War Crimes Commission, U.S. Office of Strategic Services, and Counter-Intelligence Corps, 1945-47; founder and director, Jewish Historical Documentation Center, Linz, Austria, 1947-54; director, Jewish welfare agencies, Linz, 1954-61; founder, Jewish Documentation Center, Vienna, 1961. Awards: International Resistance Diploma of Honor; Austrian Resistance Movement Needle of Honor; League of the United Nations Diploma of Honor; the Netherlands and Luxembourg freedom medals; Congressional Medal of Honor; Jerusalem Medal. Honorary doctorates: Hebrew Union College; Hebrew Theological College; Colby College; John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. Commandeur of Oranje-Nassau; Commendatore de la Republica Italiana; Commandeur de ordre pour la merite. Agent: Robert Halpern, 225 Broadway, New York, New York 10007, U.S.A. Address: Office: Jewish Historical Documentation Center, Salztorgasse 6/IV/5, 1010 Vienna, Austria.



KZ Mauthausen [Concentration Camp Mauthausen]. 1946.

The Murderers among Us: The Wiesenthal Memoirs. 1967.

Die Sonnenblume: Von Schuld und Vergebung. 1970; as The Sunflower, 1970; revised edition, as The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, 1998.


Max und Helen: Ein Tatsachenroman. 1981; as Max and Helen: A Remarkable True Love Story, 1982.

Flucht vor dem Schicksal: Roman. 1988.


Grossmufti-Grossagent der Achse [Head-Mufti, Head-Agent of the Axis]. 1947.

Ich jagte Eichmann [I Hunted Eichmann]. 1961.

Anti-Jewish Agitation in Poland: A Documentary Report. 1968.

Segel der Hoffnung: Die geheime Mission des Christoph Columbus. 1972; as Sails of Hope: The Secret Mission of Christopher Columbus, 1973.

Krystyna: Die Tragödie des polnischen Widerstands. 1986; as Krystyna: The Tragedy of the Polish Resistance, 1991.

Le Livre de la mémoire juive: Calendrier d'un martyrologue. 1986; as Every Day Remembrance Day: A Chronicle of Jewish Martyrdom, 1987.

Recht, nicht Rache: Erinnerungen. 1988; as Justice Not Vengeance, 1989.

Denn sie wussten, was sie tun: Zeichnungen und Aufzeichnungen aus dem KZ Mauthausen. 1995.

Editor, Verjährung? 200 Persönlichkeiten des öffentlichen Lebens sagen nein; Eine Dokumentation. 1965.

Editor, Projekt Judenplatz Wien: Zur Konstruktion von Erinnerung. 2000.


Film Adaptations:

Murderers among Us (television), 1988; Max and Helen (television), 1990.

Critical Studies:

Nazi Hunter: Simon Wiesenthal by Iris Noble, 1979; Simon Wiesenthal: The Man and His Legacy by Lydia Triantopoulos, edited by Rhonda Barad, 1984; The Wiesenthal File by Alan Levy, 1993; Simon Wiesenthal: A Life in Search of Justice by Hella Pick, 1996.

* * *

Simon Wiesenthal was born in 1908 in Buczacz, Galicia, at that time a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied architecture at the Technical University of Prague, from which he was awarded a degree in architectural engineering in 1932. He lived and worked as a practicing architect in Lvov, Poland. At the start of World War II, a nonaggression pact between Germany and the USSR divided Poland, and Lvov became part of the Soviet Ukraine. During the Soviet occupation Wiesenthal's stepfather was arrested by the Soviet secret police and died in prison, and Wiesenthal himself lost his employment as a successful architect. At the outbreak of the German-Soviet war, the Germans displaced the Russians from Lvov and proceeded to enact anti-Jewish restrictions, which contributed to the near-total liquidation of the Jews in Lvov and the environs by June 1943. They were assisted by the local Ukrainian population. Wiesenthal, however, was arrested by the Ukrainian police in 1941 and spent most of the war years in more than a dozen forced-labor and concentration camps. His 5-feet 11-inch frame was down to 95 pounds at the time of his liberation from Mauthausen on 5 May 1945 by the United States Army.

From The Murderers among Us (1967) we learn that Wiesenthal's career as a Nazi-hunter began shortly after the war, when he was employed by the War Crimes section of the United States Army in Austria to track down SS murderers. At the time there were more than 100,000 survivors living in 200 displaced-persons centers in Germany and Austria. With the help of friends, he established a network of correspondents in the centers who interviewed former prisoners and documented their accounts of brutal SS activities and crimes. After his service to the Americans, Wiesenthal established in 1947 the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz, Austria, where these affidavits were filed and augmented. They represented living testimony to a historical carnage that "we must not forget" and helped in the prosecution of a number of Nazi war criminals. A combination of factors, among them the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States and the waning of public interest in bringing Nazi war criminals to trial, however, influenced Wiesenthal to close the first-ever documentation center in 1954. While he continued to direct a number of Jewish welfare agencies in Linz, he never abated in his efforts to bring Adolph Otto Eichmann, the chief architect of the Final Solution, to justice. Thus, encouraged by the worldwide interest in the capture and trial of Eichmann, he reopened the Documentation Center in Vienna in 1961, devoted exclusively to documenting "Nazi (or SS) crimes." His important work of gathering and analyzing Shoah-related material has continued.

On Holocaust issues Wiesenthal has written articles, reports, and books. Among his nonfiction are Ich jagte Eichmann (1961; "I Hunted Eichmann"), his own account as der Eichmann-Jäger ("the Eichmann hunter"), who discovered Eichmann's hiding place; The Murderers among Us (1967) and Justice Not Vengeance (1989; from the German Reht nicht Rache ), selected vignettes depicting his modus operandi; The Sunflower (1970; from the German Die Sonneblume ), a narrative that asks a serious ethical and moral question; Max and Helen: A Remarkable True Love Story (1982; from the German Max und Helen ), an anguished story of two Holocaust survivors bearing an unbearable secret who refuse to bring their tormentor to justice; and Every Day Remembrance Day: A Chronicle of Jewish Martyrdom (1986), a chronicle of everyday anti-Semitic events highlighted with the anniversary dates of the deportation and destruction of European Jewry during World War II.

—Zev Garber

See the essay on The Sunflower.

Wiesenthal, Simon

views updated May 29 2018

Simon Wiesenthal

Born Szymon Wiesenthal, December 31, 1908, in Buczacz, Galicia (now part of Ukraine); died of kidney disease, September 20, 2005, in Vienna, Austria. Nazi war crimes investigator and human-rights activist. Simon Wiesenthal survived the Holocaust but lost his mother and many other family members during the ordeal in which six million European Jews were annihilated. After his release from a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, Wiesenthal dedicated his life to hunting down Nazi war criminals and is credited with bringing more than 1,100 offenders to justice. Because of his devotion to the task, he was nicknamed the "deputy for the dead."

Szymon Wiesenthal (later known as Simon) was born on December 31, 1908, in Buczacz, Galicia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now part of Ukraine. His father, Hans, was a sugar wholesaler and an officer in the Austrian Army; he died in combat in 1915. For a Jewish boy, Buczacz was not the safest place to live. Area Jews faced persecution from the Cossacks—peasants who served in the czar's cavalry and lived in communal settlements around Ukraine. When Wiesenthal was ten years old, a Cossack gashed his leg open with a saber as he crossed the street. Wiesenthal faced anti-Semitism again when he was denied admission to the Polytechnic Institute in the Ukrainian city of Lvov because of limits on Jewish enrollment. Instead, he studied architectural engineering at the Technical University in Prague, Czechoslovakia, graduating in 1932.

In 1936, Wiesenthal married his high school sweetheart, Cyla Müller, and opened an architectural practice in Lvov. Within a few years the Soviet Union's Red Army overran the city and began purging Jewish professionals. Wiesenthal's stepfather was arrested and his stepbrother shot. Forced to close his office, Wiesenthal found work in a bedspring factory.

In 1941, invading German soldiers displaced the Russian officers and gathered up the city's Jews for execution. Wiesenthal watched as a soldier shot half the group, gulping swigs of liquor in between executions. Wiesenthal's life was spared when the church bells rang and the soldiers retreated for evening mass. He and his wife were taken to a labor camp where he was given the job of painting swastikas on captured locomotives. In 1942, Wiesenthal's mother was executed. That same year, his wife, who was blonde and could pass for a Pole, was smuggled out of the area by the Polish underground and taken to Warsaw. Later recaptured, she was sent to western Germany to make machine guns for the Nazis.

During the Holocaust, Wiesenthal spent time in a dozen concentration camps and narrowly escaped alive. On April 20, 1943, Wiesenthal was among a group of men selected for execution in honor of German dictator Adolf Hitler's birthday. During the proceedings, an official decided someone needed to paint a swastika banner for the occasion and chose Wiesenthal for the honors, thus sparing his life again. In October of 1943, Wiesenthal persuaded an official to help him escape. Within a few months, though, he was returned to the Janowska camp on the outskirts of Lvov. Wiesenthal tried to kill himself but was revived for interrogation.

By the mid-1940s, the Germans had begun retreating toward Austria as Allied forces advanced. Many prisoners died during the journey, but Wiesenthal survived and on May 5, 1945, U.S. troops rolled into Austria, liberating Wiesenthal and other survivors. His 6-foot frame weighed less than 100 pounds. As soon as Wiesenthal regained his strength, he began gathering evidence for the War Crimes Unit of the U.S. Army in Austria. By the year's end, Wiesenthal was reunited with his wife, whom he feared dead. The next year, their daughter, Paulinka, was born.

While many survivors went back to their careers and tried to move on, Wiesenthal refused to forget the atrocities he had witnessed. He spent the remainder of his life tracking down war criminals, believing his survival gave him an obligation to pursue justice—through the proper channels—for those who had died. Wiesenthal opened the Jewish Documentation Centre to gather information on war criminals and cultivate relationships with contacts around the globe. Located in Austria, the center became a repository of concentration camp testimony.

Following the war, many war criminals fled Europe and tried to blend in by living ordinary lives. Many did not escape Wiesenthal's sleuthing. He was a clever detective, known for his extraordinary memory, and fluent in Polish, German, English, Yiddish, and Russian. Wiesenthal's work led to the arrest of several high-profile war criminals, including Franz Stangl, who was hiding in Brazil. Stangl, a Polish death camp commandant, was extradited to West Germany for trial and died in prison there. Wiesenthal also tracked down Gestapo aide Karl Silberbauer, who had arrested Anne Frank and her family.

Once, Wiesenthal tipped off a New York Times reporter, who hunted down Valerian D. Trifa, who had led a massacre of Jews in Romania. At the time, Trifa was working as an archbishop of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate in Michigan. He was deported to Portugal, where he died. Wiesenthal also located concentration camp guard Hermine Braun-steiner, who had escaped to the United States in the 1950s, married and settled in the New York City borough of Queens. She was infamous for shooting small children and selecting women for the gas chambers. She received a life term.

Many times, Wiesenthal was criticized for his efforts, particularly for his publicity stunts, yet he always downplayed critics. According to the Washington Post, he once remarked, "I'm doing this because I have to do it. I am not motivated by a sense of revenge. Perhaps I was for a short time in the very beginning." Wiesenthal went on to note that he had to do it so people do not forget. "If all of us forgot, the same thing might happen again, in 20 or 50 or 100 years." Besides criticism, Wiesenthal faced real danger, too. In 1982, his Vienna house was fire-bombed, though he escaped unharmed and refused to move. German and Austrian neo-Nazis were later charged.

Wiesenthal wrote several books about his efforts, including 1967's The Murderers Among Us and 1989's Justice, Not Vengeance. His life was also the topic of a 1989 HBO movie, Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story, based on his memoirs. Wiesenthal also promoted human rights. Later in life, he urged war criminal trials for those responsible for genocide in the former Yugoslavia. He also lectured and gave countless interviews, many times denouncing far-right politics. He also reminded world leaders of their duty to combat racism.

Over his lifetime, Wiesenthal was bestowed with many honors, including the establishment of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which is dedicated to Jewish defense, education, and commemoration. Other honors include the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 1980, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000, and honorary British knighthood in 2004.

Wiesenthal's wife predeceased him in 2003. On September 20, 2005, Wiesenthal died of a kidney ailment in Vienna. Survivors include his daughter and three grandchildren. Sources: CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/09/20/obit.wiesenthal/index.html (September 20, 2005); Economist, September 24, 2005, p. 102; Independent (London), September 21, 2005; New York Times, September 21, 2005, p. A1, p. C18; People, October 3, 2005, p. 87; Washington Post, September 21, 2005, p. A1, p. A18.


Wiesenthal, Simon

views updated May 23 2018


WIESENTHAL, SIMON (1908–2005), the world's most famous "Nazi-hunter," the personification of the efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice after World War ii. Born in the Galician city of Buczacz, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and after World War i part of independent Poland (today located in Ukraine), Wiesenthal was forced to study architectural engineering at the Technical University in Prague due to restrictive Polish quotas on Jewish students. After completing his studies, he returned to Poland, obtained certification as an architect, and began working in his profession in the (then) Polish city of Lwow (Lvov).

During World War ii, Wiesenthal was incarcerated in nine concentration and labor camps, among them Janowska, Plaszow, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Mauthausen, from which he was liberated, barely alive, on May 5, 1945, by the United States Army. During the course of the war, he narrowly escaped death several times, and twice attempted to commit suicide to avoid being tortured. It was these close encounters with almost certain death, and his conviction that many Jews far more worthy than himself had perished in the war, to which he attributed his strong motivation to lend significance to his own survival. A postwar incident, shortly after liberation, in which Wiesenthal was beaten by a former kapo in Mauthausen, who was summarily punished by the American commander of the camp, who assured the Jewish survivor that the supremacy of the rule of law had been restored, deeply influenced his decision to abandon his profession and devote his life to the efforts to facilitate the prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators.

Wiesenthal began his career with the War Crimes Unit of the U.S. Army in Austria and later, in 1947, established the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz, where he collected the testimonies of hundreds of Holocaust survivors. In 1954, however, Wiesenthal closed the center due to waning interest in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, which he primarily attributed to the growing tensions of the Cold War. In his opinion, the perpetrators of the Holocaust were the biggest beneficiaries of the hostility between the superpowers, which severely limited the efforts to bring them to justice. He sent his files to Yad Vashem, and went to work for Jewish organizations assisting refugees from Eastern Europe.

In 1961, however, following the *Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Wiesenthal opened the Documentation Center in Vienna and resumed his efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, a mission which he continued virtually until his death. Although he played no role in the actual capture of Eichmann, who was kidnapped by the Mossad in Argentina in 1960 and brought to Israel to stand trial, Wiesenthal gained international stature due to his connection to the case. In 1947 he had prevented Eichmann's wife, Vera, from having Eichmann declared officially dead by an Austrian court (which would have led to the removal of his name from the lists of wanted criminals) and was the first to point to Argentina as his possible haven. After he closed his office in 1954, Eichmann's file was the only one he kept.

Over the years, Wiesenthal played a crucial role in the exposure and apprehension of numerous Nazi war criminals, many of whom were prosecuted and punished. Among his most famous cases were those of Treblinka and Sobibor commandant Franz Stangl, whom he tracked down to Brazil; notoriously cruel Majdanek guard Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, whom he found in the United States; Sobibor deputy commander Franz Gustav Wagner (Brazil); and Karl Silberbauer (Austria), the Gestapo operative who arrested Anne *Frank and her family in their hiding place in Amsterdam. In addition, Wiesenthal played a prominent role in the ultimately successful worldwide efforts to convince the West German government not to impose a statute of limitations on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals whose implementation was scheduled to go into effect in 1979.

Throughout his life, Wiesenthal stressed the importance of remembering the crimes of the Holocaust and preserving the accuracy of the historical record. In that respect, he achieved worldwide status as a spokesperson for both the survivors and the victims of the Holocaust, an achievement which perhaps surpasses his role as a "Nazi-hunter." His accomplishments in this role were largely significant during the 1950s and 1960s, when there was little public interest in the subject of the Holocaust.

Wiesenthal's work was guided by three major principles: the primacy of the rule of law, his refusal to categorize people by their religion or ethnic origin, and the importance of noting the fate of the Nazis' non-Jewish victims. Thus he steadfastly opposed revenge attempts, emphasized the fact that the nations that produced killers also had Righteous Gentiles, and consistently stressed the fact that the Jews were not the Nazis' only victims. These points found expression in the numerous books he wrote, especially in his best-known works, The Murderers among Us (1970) and Justice Not Vengeance (1989). In The Sunflower (1970) and the novel Max and Helen (1982), he explored the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation.

A stubborn defender of his views, Wiesenthal was involved in two well-publicized controversies, one with Austrian chancellor Bruno *Kreisky, whom he criticized for including former Nazis in his government, and a second with the World Jewish Congress, which questioned his apparent lack of enthusiasm for their campaign to prosecute Austrian president (and former un secretary-general) Kurt Waldheim for war crimes he ostensibly committed during World War ii. Various detractors accused him of claming credit for the achievements of others, particularly in the Eichmann case.

In 1979, the *Simon Wiesenthal Center was established by Rabbi Marvin *Hier in Los Angeles. While a separate organization, its high-profile activities, both in the fight against antisemitism and the continued efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, have added to Wiesenthal's international stature and fame, though his association with the organization that bore his name was limited. The recipient of numerous honors, doctorates, and prizes, his efforts to perpetuate the memory of the victims and hold their killers responsible were most appreciated during his last years, when public interest in the Holocaust reached unprecedented heights.

[Efraim Zuroff (2nd ed.)]

Wiesenthal Centre

views updated Jun 27 2018

Wiesenthal Centre an institution to trace and track down Nazi criminals, founded by the Austrian Jewish investigator of Nazi war crimes Simon Wiesenthal (1908– ). After spending three years in concentration camps he began a campaign to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, tracing some 1,000 unprosecuted criminals including Adolf Eichmann.