Simon Wiesenthal, the Holocaust survivor who helped track down numerous Nazi war criminals following World War II then spent the later decades of his life fighting anti-Semitism and prejudice against all people, died Tuesday. He was 96.
His life’s quest began after the Americans liberated the Mauthausen death camp in Austria where Wiesenthal was a prisoner in May 1945. It was his fifth death camp among the dozen Nazi camps in which he was imprisoned, and he weighed just 99 pounds when he was freed. He said he quickly realized “there is no freedom without justice,” and decided to dedicate “a few years” to seeking justice.
Wiesenthal began his work on May 9, 1945 — the day after World War II ended — by presenting his American liberators a list of Nazi war criminals that he had compiled. He took on a task nobody else wanted.
He was born on Dec. 31, 1908, to Jewish merchants at Buczacs, a small town near the present-day Ukrainian city of Lvov in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire. He studied in Prague and Warsaw and in 1932 received a degree in civil engineering.
He apprenticed as a building engineer in Soviet Russia before returning to Lvov to work toward an architecture degree and opened an architectural office before the Russians and then the Germans occupied Lvov and the terror began.
After 1945, working first with the Americans and later from a cramped Vienna apartment packed floor to ceiling with documents, Wiesenthal tirelessly pursued fugitive Nazi war criminals.
He was perhaps best known for his role in tracking down Adolf Eichmann, the SS leader who organized the extermination of the Jews.
Eichmann was found in Argentina, abducted by Israeli agents in 1960, tried and hanged for crimes committed against the Jews.
Among others Wiesenthal tracked was Austrian policeman Karl Silberbauer, who he believes arrested the Dutch teenager Anne Frank and sent her to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she died. Officials never reacted to the tip.
Wiesenthal decided to pursue Silberbauer in 1958 after a youth told him he did not believe in Anne Frank’s existence and murder, but would if Wiesenthal could find the man who arrested her. His five-year search resulted in Silberbauer’s 1963 capture.
Wiesenthal did not bring to justice one prime target — Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Mengele died in South America after eluding capture for decades.
Wiesenthal’s long quest for justice also stirred controversy.
In Austria, which took decades to acknowledge its own role in Nazi crimes, Wiesenthal was ignored and often insulted before finally being honored for his work when he was in his 80s.
Ironically, it was the furor over Kurt Waldheim, who became president in 1986 despite lying about his past as an officer in Hitler’s army, that gave Wiesenthal stature in Austria.
Wiesenthal did repeatedly demand Waldheim’s resignation, seeing him as a symbol of those who suppressed Austrians’ role as part of Hitler’s German war and death machine. But he turned up no proof of widespread allegations that Waldheim was an accessory to war crimes.
He pursued his crusade of remembrance into old age with the vigor of youth, with patience and determination. But as he entered his 90s, he worried that his mission would die with him.
Wiesenthal had more high foreign awards than any other living Austrian citizen. In 1995, the city of Vienna made him an honorary citizen. He also wrote several books, including his memoirs, “The Murderers Among Us,” in 1967, and worked regularly at the small downtown office of his Jewish Documentation Center even after turning 90.
Among Mr. Wiesenthal’s many honors include decorations from the Austrian and French resistance movements, the Dutch Freedom Medal, the Luxembourg Freedom Medal, the United Nations League for the Help of Refugees Award, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal presented to him by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, and the French Legion of Honor which he received in 1986. Wiesenthal was a consultant for the motion picture thriller, The Odessa File (Paramount, 1974). The Boys From Brazil (Twentieth Century Fox, 1978), a major motion picture based on Ira Levin’s book of the same name, starring Sir Laurence Olivier as Herr Lieberman, a character styled after Wiesenthal.
In 1981, the Wiesenthal Center produced the Academy Award-winning documentary, Genocide, narrated by Elizabeth Taylor and the late Orson Welles, and introduced by Simon Wiesenthal.
“The most important thing I have done is to fight against forgetting and to keep remembrance alive,” he said in the 1999 interview with The Associated Press. “It is very important to let people know that our enemies are not forgotten.”
Wiesenthal is often asked to explain his motives for becoming a Nazi hunter. According to Clyde Farnsworth in the New York Times Magazine (February 2, 1964), Wiesenthal once spent the Sabbath at the home of a former Mauthausen inmate, now a well-to-do jewelry manufacturer. After dinner his host said, “Simon, if you had gone back to building houses, you’d be a millionaire. Why didn’t you?” “You’re a religious man,” replied Wiesenthal. “You believe in God and life after death. I also believe. When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask us, ‘What have you done?’, there will be many answers. You will say, ‘I became a jeweler’, Another will say, I have smuggled coffee and American cigarettes’, Another will say, ‘I built houses’, But I will say, ‘I didn’t forget you.'”
Wiesenthal’s wife, Cyla, whom he married in 1936, died in November 2003.