Simon Wiesenthal (Buczacz, December 31, 1908 – Vienna, September 20, 2005) was an Austrian-Jewish architectural engineer and Holocaust survivor who became famous after World War II for his work as a Nazi hunter who pursued Nazi war criminals in an effort to bring them to justice.
Following four and a half years in the German concentration camps of Janowska, Plaszow, and Mauthausen during World War II, Wiesenthal dedicated most of his life to tracking down and gathering information on fugitive Nazis so that they could be brought to justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity. As soon as his health improved, Wiesenthal began working for the U.S. Army gathering documentation for the Nazi war crimes trials. In 1947, he and 30 other volunteers founded the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz, Austria, in order to gather information for future trials. Later he opened Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna. Wiesenthal wrote The Sunflower, which describes a life-changing event he experienced when he was in the camp.
Wiesenthal died in his sleep at age 96 in Vienna on September 20, 2005, and was buried in the city of Herzliya in Israel on 23 September. He is survived by his daughter, Paulinka Kriesberg, and three grandchildren. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, located in Los Angeles in the United States, is named in honor of him.
Wiesenthal was born at 11:30 pm on December 31st, 1908 in Buczacz, Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria (then part of Austria-Hungary, now Buchach, part of the Ternopil Oblast section of Ukraine) to a Jewish merchant family. He enjoyed a relatively pleasant early childhood, during which his father, Asher Wiesenthal, a 1905 refugee from the pogroms of czarist Russia (1869-1917), became an established citizen in Buczacz trading in sugar and other wholesale commodities.
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, however, his father, as a reserve in the Austro-Hungarian Army, was called to active duty and died in combat on the Eastern Front in 1917. With Russian control of Galicia during this period, Wiesenthal and his remaining family (mother and brother) fled taking refuge in Vienna, Austria.
Wiesenthal and his brother went to school in Vienna until the Russian retreat from Galicia in 1917, when they moved back to Buczacz. At the Humanistic Gymnasium, where Simon went to school during those years, he met his future wife Cyla Muller, whom he would marry in 1936. In 1925, his mother remarried and moved with his brother to the Carpathian Mountains. Simon opted to continue his studies in Buczacz, but visited them often.
After graduating high school in 1927, he was denied admission to the Polish Lwów Polytechnic because of quota restrictions on Jewish students. Instead, he attended the Technical University in Prague, which he graduated in 1932 receiving a degree in architectural engineering.
In 1934 and 1935, Wiesenthal apprenticed as a building engineer in Stalinist Soviet Russia, spending a few weeks in Kharkov and Kiev and the rest of the apprenticeship in the Black Sea port of Odessa.
Returning to Galicia at the end of his Russian apprenticeship, Wiesenthal was finally allowed to enter Lwów Polytechnic and tried to earn the advanced degree that would allow him to practice architecture in Poland. Following his marriage, he opened his own architectural office in Lwów, despite not having a Polish diploma in hand, but a Czech one from Prague. He specialised in elegant villas, which wealthy Polish Jews were building despite the threats of Nazism to the west. His career spanned all of three years until he finished his final job a week before the German invasion, which began September 1 1939.
Wiesenthal was living in Lwów (then part of Poland, and now Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine), when World War II began. As a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Lwów was occupied by the Soviet Union on 17 September 1939. Wiesenthal's stepfather and stepbrother were killed by agents of the NKVD, the Soviet state security and secret police, as a part of the anti-Polish purge designed to eliminate all Polish enemies of the people that followed the Soviet occupation of Lwów. Wiesenthal was forced to close his firm and work in a factory. He bribed a NKVD commissar to prevent a deportation of him, wife, and mother to a Gulag labor camp in Siberia. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Wiesenthal and his family were captured.
Wiesenthal survived an early wave of executions during the Holocaust thanks to the intervention of a man named Bodnar, a Ukrainian auxiliary policeman who, on July 6 1941, saved him from execution by the Nazis then occupying Lwów, as recalled in Wiesenthal's memoir, The Murderers Among Us, written with Joseph Wechsberg. Wiesenthal and his wife were first imprisoned in the Janowska Street camp in the suburbs of the city, where they were forced to work on the local railroad. Simon and Cyla worked at the Lwów Railroad Repair Yard where Simon painted Swastica and Eagle Shields. The head SS soldier was a man named Heinrich Gunthert. Gunthert asked Wiesenthal, on one occasion, where he was educated. Wiesenthal, remembering that an educated Jew was a dead Jew, lied and said he went to a trade school. Several men stated that he lied and Gunthert confronted him. He asked Wiesenthal why he lied and Wiesenthal confessed. Gunthert respected Wiesenthal for his education and gave him the job of Architectural Design and a comfortable office to work in. Another head SS man named Kohlrautz gave him two pistols to hide in his office and kept them a secret.
In the ghetto, Wiesenthal’s mother was crammed among other Jewish women on to a freight train to the extermination camp of Bełżec, where she perished in August 1942. Around the same time, Cyla Wiesenthal found out her mother had been shot in Buczacz on her front porch by a Ukrainian policeman as she was being evicted from her home. Cyla and Simon Wiesenthal lost 89 relatives during the Holocaust.
Members of the Home Army, the underground Polish army, helped Cyla Wiesenthal escape from the camp and provided her with false documents in exchange for diagrams of railroad junctions drawn by her husband. Cyla Wiesenthal was able to hide her Jewish identity from the Nazis because of her blonde hair and survived the war as a forced-laborer in the Rhineland. Until the end of the war, Simon believed she had perished in the Warsaw Uprising. Following their surprising reunion, they soon had their first and only child, Pauline, in 1946 (who now lives in Israel).
April 20 (1943) marked Hitler's birthday. The Janowska guards decided to shoot 44 Jews in celebration for Hitler's birthday. Wiesenthal and three other inmates were given the task to paint posters saying "Wir lieben unseren Führer!" (We love our Leader!) Two SS guards caught them and took them to Janowska. Wiesenthal remembers looking at Gunthert and Gunthert shrugging his shoulders at him. At Janowska the three men lined up with 40 other prisoners. The prisoners were stripped and led through the Hose. The Hose was a 6'-7' wide passage. The hose led to some Sandpits where numerous bodies lay dead. The prisoners were lined up hands at the back of their necks. Five SS men and the SS commander came walking out with submachine guns. Wiesenthal heard the shots and counted five shots. One prisoner fell. Wiesenthal stopped counting and men kept falling. They were the only three men left and yet the loudspeaker rang, "Wiesenthal is needed at the front." At the front of the camp stood Kohlrauts. He was saved, again.
However, Simon Wiesenthal did not escape imprisonment so quickly. With the help of a deputy director of the camp he managed to escape from Janowska before the Nazis murdered the camp's inmates in October 1943, and escaped into the Polish underground (for his expertise in engineering and architecture would help the Polish Partisans with bunkers and lines of fortification against German forces).
He was recaptured in June of the following year (1944) by Gestapo officers. After two failed suicide attempts, Wiesenthal and the 34 remaining Janowska prisoners were sent on a death march from camps in Poland (including Płaszów) and Germany to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. By the time he was liberated by American forces on May 5 1945, he had been imprisoned in 12 different concentration camps, including five death camps, and had narrowly escaped execution on a number of occasions. His wife passed as Aryan, a non-Jewish person, and escaped from the concentration camps with a fake ID.
At the time of his liberation, Wiesenthal stood at 1.80 m (5'11"), and weighed less than 45 kg (99 lb). As soon as his health improved, Wiesenthal began working for the U.S. Army gathering documentation for the Nazi war crimes trials. In 1947, he and 30 other volunteers founded the Jewish Documentation Center in Linz, Austria, in order to gather information for future trials. However, as the U.S. and the Soviet Union lost interest in further war crimes trials, the group drifted apart. Wiesenthal continued to gather information in his spare time while working full-time to help those affected by World War II.
During this time, Wiesenthal claimed to be instrumental in the capture and conviction of the transport manager of the "Final Solution," Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, and was known to be actively involved in the manhunt for the former Nazi official. He was invited by Yad Vashem to talk about his part in tracking Eichmann down and he was earnestly instructed not to mention on any account that his whole correspondence had gone through the Israeli embassy or that Israeli intelligence had played a part. He faithfully obeyed, but this so angered Isser Harel, then head of the Mossad, that when he published his own memoirs in 1971 he likewise made no mention of Wiesenthal's role. Harel's allegations have been disputed at book length, and Wiesenthal's contributions to Harel's published efforts have never been acknowledged.
It should be noted, in regard to this and other accusations, that Wiesenthal's ecumenical but determined attitude toward tracking human rights abuses, represented by his comments, "justice, not vengeance," and "I am not a hater," have put him at odds with a wide variety of institutions and people over the years.
After Eichmann was executed in Israel in 1962, Wiesenthal reopened the Jewish Documentation Center, which now focused on other cases. Among his most high-profile successes was the capture of Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer responsible for the arrest of Anne Frank. Silberbauer's confession helped discredit claims that The Diary of Anne Frank was a forgery. During this period Wiesenthal also located nine of the 16 Nazis later put on trial in West Germany for the murder of the Jewish population of Lwów and also captured Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps, and Hermine Braunsteiner-Ryan, a former Aufseherin (literally, "female supervisor") living in Queens who had ordered and participated in the torture and murder of thousands of women and children at Majdanek.
In the 1970s he became involved in Austrian politics when he pointed out that several ministers in Bruno Kreisky's newly formed Socialist government had been Nazis when Austria was part of the Third Reich. Kreisky, himself Jewish, responded by attacking Wiesenthal as a Nestbeschmutzer (someone who dirties their own nest). In Austria, which took decades to acknowledge its role in Nazi crimes, Wiesenthal was ignored and often insulted. In 1975, after Wiesenthal had released a report on FPÖ party chairman Friedrich Peter's Nazi past, Chancellor Bruno Kreisky suggested Wiesenthal was part of a "certain mafia" seeking to besmirch Austria and even claimed Wiesenthal had collaborated with Nazis and Gestapo to survive, a charge that Wiesenthal labeled ridiculous.
During the Waldheim affair, Wiesenthal defended the Austrian president, for which he was severely criticized.
Even after turning 90, Wiesenthal spent time at his small office in the Jewish Documentation Center in central Vienna. In April 2003, Wiesenthal announced his retirement, saying that he had found the mass murderers he had been looking for: "I have survived them all. If there were any left, they'd be too old and weak to stand trial today. My work is done." According to Simon Wiesenthal, the last major Austrian war criminal still alive is Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann's right-hand man, who was last seen by reliable witnesses in 1992. However, Wiesenthal was also believed to be working on the case of Aribert Heim, one of the most notorious and wanted Nazi concentration camp doctors, prior to his retirement.
Wiesenthal spent his last years in Vienna, where his wife, Cyla, died of natural causes on 10 November 2003, at the age of 95. Wiesenthal died in his sleep at age 96 in Vienna on September 20, 2005, and was buried in the city of Herzliya in Israel on 23 September. He is survived by his daughter, Paulinka Kriesberg, and three grandchildren.
In a statement on Wiesenthal's death, Council of Europe chairman Terry Davis said, "Without Simon Wiesenthal's relentless effort to find Nazi criminals and bring them to justice, and to fight anti-Semitism and prejudice, Europe would never have succeeded in healing its wounds and reconciling itself... He was a soldier of justice, which is indispensable to our freedom, stability and peace."
In October, 2006, the Vienna city council overwhelmingly approved renaming a street in Wiesenthal's honor. The newly-named Simon-Wiesenthal-Gasse was formerly known as Ichmanngasse. The former name honored Franz Ichmann, a songwriter in the early 20th century, and card-carrying member of the Nazi party.