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Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal dies
BERLIN Simon Wiesenthal was very open about why he became a tireless Nazi hunter: He didn’t want to meet millions of Holocaust victims in the afterlife and admit he’d forgotten their suffering.
“Survival is a privilege which entails obligations,” he said in the 1989 book “Justice Not Vengeance.”
When he died yesterday at 96, in his sleep at home in Vienna, friends and admirers noted that he should have had peace on that point: It was a job not only well done, but finished.
“Essentially, Nazi hunting ends with him,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post in 1994, Wiesenthal, widely credited with bringing Nazi crimes into the public consciousness, said, “The only value of nearly five decades of my work is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow, that they will never rest.”
He tracked down more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals from Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of Adolf Hitler’s “final solution” (the plan for the mass extermination of Jews), to the Gestapo agent who arrested Jewish schoolgirl Anne Frank…
Holocaust deniers had been claiming she and her famous diary were fiction before the arresting officer confirmed them to Wiesenthal.
Through informants, which included veterans of rival Nazi-era intelligence services, Wiesenthal helped expose organizations like Odessa, which slipped former Nazis to South America.
Over the years, Wiesenthal sought greater recognition for the sufferings of the gypsies, communists and others under the Nazi regime as well as the wartime efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who aided Jews and disappeared mysteriously in 1945 while in the custody of the Soviet army.
He frequently called himself a “deputy for the dead.”
Wiesenthal’s wife, Cyla, who died in 2003, once said that living with the Nazi hunter was like being “married to thousands, or maybe millions, of dead.” He is survived by their daughter, Paulinka.
Some critics, including Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, accused Wiesenthal of grandstanding, of overstating the number of Nazis he helped collar (he claimed 1,100) and his role in their capture.
Wiesenthal was said to be deeply disappointed when the Nobel Prize committee awarded Wiesel the Peace Prize in 1986 rather than sharing it between them.
Wiesenthal’s longtime friend Martin Mendelsohn, a Washington attorney who headed what is now the Office of Special Investigations in the U.S. Justice Department, said Wiesenthal, who spoke several languages, had no choice but to try to attract attention if he was to spur governments to address war crimes.
“Of course, he was a self-promoter,” Mendelsohn said, “but when no one is listening, you have to be.”
Wiesenthal’s work includes a 1967 memoir titled “The Murderers Among Us.” He received numerous government decorations, including the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 1980. He consulted on the 1974 film “The Odessa File” and was the basis for a character in the 1978 film “The Boys From Brazil.” His center won an Oscar for its documentary “Genocide.”
His work also created thousands of enemies: He was constantly under death threats, his home was bombed, and the Viennese postal service maintained a bombproof room in which to examine his packages. At times, his enemies were thugs, former or neo-Nazis hoping to stay hidden.
Shimon Samuels, the international liaison for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris, said Wiesenthal’s biggest regret in life was that despite the horrors of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is again on the rise in Europe.
A lifelong scar
Simon Wiesenthal was born Dec. 31, 1908, in Buczacz, a town that was then in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia but is now in Ukraine.
At 9, he got his first taste of an anti-Jewish pogrom: A Ukrainian soldier cut him on the thigh with a sword, leaving a lifelong scar. Because of a quota limiting Jewish enrollment at the technical institute in the nearby city of Lvov, he left at 19 for Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he earned a degree in 1932 in architectural engineering.
He returned to Lvov, by then part of Poland, and opened an architectural business that designed houses. He also edited a Jewish student magazine satirizing a growing political force in Germany the Nazis. In September 1936, at a rabbi’s house in Lvov, he married Cyla Mueller, his high school sweetheart.
In 1939, Poland was partitioned, and Lvov fell to the Soviets, who forced Wiesenthal to close his architectural company. On June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and the Soviet-occupied portion of Poland.
Within weeks, 6,000 Jews in the area were killed. On July 6, Wiesenthal was arrested and had his first brush with death. The Nazis lined him up with more than three dozen other Jewish professionals and began to shoot them one by one through the neck.
The executioner, he said years later to Alan Levy, the late author of “Nazi Hunter, the Wiesenthal File,” took a break now and then to down a vodka.
Suddenly, among the echoing gunshots, Wiesenthal said, he heard church bells. It was time for evening Mass. Before getting to Wiesenthal, the executioner put down his weapon and went to pray.
Wiesenthal was locked up.
He spent nearly four years in captivity, part of it in forced-
labor camps, where he quarried stone, carried armor and dug burial pits.
Wiesenthal and his wife spent parts of 1941, ’42 and ’43 in a camp near Janowska that serviced the Eastern Railroad Repair Works. Heinrich Gunthert, who ran the camp, discovered that Wiesenthal was an architect. Gunthert’s assistant, Adolf Kohlrautz, put him to work as a draftsman. In return, he gave the Wiesenthals a separate hut and had food smuggled to Wiesenthal’s mother in the ghetto at Lemberg, the Austrian name for Lvov.
In August 1942, however, Wiesenthal watched as the Nazis loaded his mother and 300 other women into three freight cars bound for Belzec, a killing center. It had gas chambers that held 1,200, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Commission, and 600,000 died there.
Wiesenthal did not see his mother again.
In early 1943, Simon Wiesenthal made a deal with the Polish underground to save his wife. He drew charts of railroad junctions for saboteurs. In return, underground agents spirited Cyla to Lublin, where, as a blonde, the Nazis thought she was Polish and took her to Solingen, where she worked in a machine-gun factory.
On April 12, the SS removed Wiesenthal from the railroad work camp and took him back to Janowska. Guards marched him to a burial pit and lined him up with 40 others.
Wiesenthal was saved for the second time. An SS corporal appeared and told the executioners to let him go.
It was Hitler’s 54th birthday, and Kohlrautz needed Wiesenthal to draw and paint a large sign:
“Wir danken unserem Fuhrer.” (“We thank our leader.”)
Five months later, Kohlrautz warned Wiesenthal that Jews at the rail works would be sent to killing centers. Wiesenthal took it as an invitation to escape. On Oct. 6, 1943, he did.
He was captured eight months later and taken to Gestapo headquarters in Lvov. Fearing torture, he tried to kill himself, first by slashing his wrists, then by trying to overdose on sleeping pills, finally by hanging himself with his trousers. He was hospitalized for five weeks.
When he recovered, he was taken back to Janowska. By then Allied forces were closing in on the Nazis. Wiesenthal and 33 others out of an original 100,000 prisoners who had not died or been moved out of the camp were lined up to be shot. For a third time, Wiesenthal was saved.
Commandant Friedrich Warzok decided to let the prisoners live so they would need guarding; then the official and his men would not have to go to the eastern front to fight. “We 34 Jews,” Wiesenthal wrote, “became the life insurance for almost 200 SS men.”
Warzok moved his prisoners west. Some were shot. Searching for food, Wiesenthal and a corporal named Merz fell into a conversation. In “The Murderers Among Us,” Wiesenthal recounted their talk:
Merz asked what he would do if he ever got to New York and people inquired about the concentration camps.
Haltingly, Wiesenthal replied, “I believe I would tell the people the truth.”
“You know what would happen, Wiesenthal?” Merz asked, smiling. “They wouldn’t believe you. They’d say you were crazy. Might even put you into a madhouse. How can anyone believe this terrible business unless they lived through it?”
With that, biographer Hella Pick wrote, Wiesenthal would show the world that the Nazis really had committed these atrocities, so there would be no erasure of history.
SS officers from the southern Polish city of Krakow found Warzok and his prisoners. They shot more of the Jews, then took Wiesenthal to the Plaszow camp in Poland and subsequently to the Gross Rosen camp in what was then Germany but is now Poland.
Wiesenthal faced death for the fourth time. An SS guard lifted a rock to bash in his head. Accidentally, the guard dropped it, smashing Wiesenthal’s foot. The Nazis amputated a toe, without anesthetic. The next day the quarry was evacuated. Using a broomstick to prop himself up, Wiesenthal hobbled out.
Guards took him and others to the Buchenwald concentration camp, then finally to Mauthausen outside Linz, Austria.
On May 5, 1945, Col. Richard Seibel led troops of the U.S. 11th Armored Division into the camp.
Seibel and his troops found as many as 10,000 bodies in a single grave. Among the living “were thousands who had been starved, beaten and cruelly tortured,” Seibel told his superiors in a report quoted in Pick’s book.
Wiesenthal was too shattered physically to leave. Two days after liberation, he was beaten by a disgruntled trusty. His friends urged him to report the incident. He went to U.S. Army offices and walked through a door with a scrawled sign: “War Crimes.”
Wiesenthal went to the War Crimes Office and offered his services. A lieutenant colonel saw how weak he was and simply shook his head. The Americans urged him to return to Poland and resume his architectural career. He refused.
Ten days later, after gaining some weight and rubbing his cheeks with red paper to give them color, he returned to the War Crimes Office.
This time U.S. Army officers told him he could start at once.
He was sent to arrest an SS man named Schmidt, who had been a guard at Mauthausen. Schmidt lived on the second floor of a nearby apartment building. He did not resist. Wiesenthal said he himself was so weak that Schmidt had to help him back down the stairs.
With the onset of the Cold War, the United States and its allies grew more concerned with helping West Germany rebuild its army as a bulwark against the Soviet Union than in finding and prosecuting German war criminals. Wiesenthal grew ever more frustrated.
In 1946, with 30 volunteers, he opened his own Historical Documentation Center in Linz.
He developed correspondents among 100,000 Holocaust survivors across Germany, Austria and Italy. They distributed photographs to identify and find former SS officers, who, according to Wiesenthal, rarely used their real names after 1945 and sometimes had pseudonyms even during the war.
Within three months, Wiesenthal knew of 1,000 places where war crimes had been committed. He sent his information to the Allies. When the International Military Tribunal met at Nuremberg in 1945 and 1946 to try Nazi war criminals, it used some of his files.
Wiesenthal’s work drew his attention to Eichmann, described by historian Raul Hilberg as “the supreme practitioner” of extermination.
After the war, Eichmann vanished.
In 1951, Wiesenthal learned that Eichmann had gone to Rome and hidden in a monastery. In 1953, he was told that the Nazi had been seen near Buenos Aires, Argentina. Wiesenthal had no resources to search in South America.
In 1957, a German prosecutor told the Israelis he had learned that Eichmann was indeed in Argentina. Wiesenthal said he had passed along information that Eichmann’s mother-in-law was telling friends that her daughter had remarried and was living in Argentina with a man named “Klemt.”
The man turned out to be Ricardo Klement, who turned out to be Eichmann.
In 1960, the Israeli spy agency Mossad kidnapped Eichmann in Buenos Aires and took him to Israel, where he was tried and executed.