Simon Wiesenthal

Holocaust survivor who devoted the rest of his life to pursuing Nazi war criminals
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The Independent Online

One of the most famous survivors of the Holocaust, Simon Wiesenthal became over the years the personification of the efforts to hunt Nazi war criminals. At the same time, he deserves much of the credit for preserving the memory of the Nazis' victims, especially during the years immediately after the end of the Second World War.

Born on the last day of 1908 in the Galician city of Buczacz, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now in Ukraine, Wiesenthal studied architectural engineering at the Technical University in Prague, and worked as an architect in Lwow, Poland, before the outbreak of war. Following the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in June 1941, Wiesenthal was incarcerated in numerous concentration camps and narrowly escaped death several times. In early July 1941, he was taken to be shot with dozens of Jewish professionals but was saved when the Ukrainian police doing the shooting took a break for evening prayers, and a Ukrainian acquaintance smuggled him to safety. Along with the Jews of Lwow, Wiesenthal and his wife Cyla were locked up in the local ghetto and were later sent to the Janowska concentration camp, from whence the former architect was sent to paint eagles and swastikas on captured locomotives.

On 20 April 1943, Wiesenthal was among 20 men taken to be shot in Janowska as part of the celebration of Hitler's 54th birthday. He was spared, however, when an SS corporal demanded his release on the grounds that he was needed to paint a banner with a swastika for the occasion. Wiesenthal subsequently wrote that his rescue at this point engendered a deep sense of guilt, as in his opinion he had not done anything to deserve being saved. When his German superior Adolf Kohlrautz later helped him escape from the camp, it strengthened his opposition to collective guilt. Having been saved initially by a Ukrainian and later by German Nazis, Wiesenthal became a firm believer in judging people by their deeds rather than their nationality.

Wiesenthal hid in Lwow, but was discovered by the police. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt (the Nazis gave orders to nurse him back to health so that he could be interrogated), he escaped from Gestapo headquarters only to end up again at Janowska, from whence he was taken to further concentration camps in Poland, Germany and Austria. When he was liberated by the Americans in Mauthausen on 5 May 1945, he weighed less than eight stone and was in extremely poor health.

Shortly after his liberation, Wiesenthal was beaten by a Polish clerk in Mauthausen. Those blows hurt more than any others, he later wrote, because they meant that, despite the mass murder of Jews, anti-Semitism was still alive and, if that was the case, the Holocaust could obviously happen again. When the Pole was held accountable by an American officer who assured Wiesenthal that the supremacy of the rule of law had been restored, the survivor found the meaning he sought for his life in post-war Europe. In Wiesenthal's eyes, the fact that many better, smarter and more decent Jews than he had perished while he had survived seemed almost offensive. He sought therefore to lend meaning to his survival by attempting to bring the perpetrators to justice.

After the war Wiesenthal was reunited with his wife, who he had thought had died (they worked out that 89 members of their two families had been killed), and their daughter Pauline was born in 1946. He initially worked for the War Crimes Unit of the US Army in Austria and later, in 1947, established the Jewish Historical Documentation Centre in Linz to collect evidence against Nazi war criminals.

The centre was closed in 1954 due to waning interest in the prosecution of Nazis, a development which Wiesenthal attributed primarily to the Cold War. In his opinion, the real winners of the hostility between the superpowers were the Nazi war criminals, many more of whom would have otherwise been prosecuted. In 1961, however, in the wake of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, whose "death" Wiesenthal had repeatedly questioned, he reopened the Jewish Documentation Centre in Vienna, and as its director ever since played a major role in the efforts to bring the perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice.

Wiesenthal led the campaign to ensure that West Germany not impose a statute of limitations on Nazi war crimes and was involved in uncovering numerous prominent Nazi war criminals. Among the estimated 1,100 war criminals he tracked down, his more famous cases were those of Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps; Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer who arrested Anne Frank; Franz Murer, who played an important role in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews in Vilnius, Lithuania; and Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, who had served as a guard at the Majdanek death camp and was notorious for her cruel treatment of the inmates.

Throughout his career, Wiesenthal was guided by several principles. First and foremost was the importance of the rule of law. Justice, in his opinion, not only ensures order but gives hope that the guilty will be held accountable, a basic tenet without which society cannot survive. Thus Wiesenthal consistently opposed revenge attempts, viewing them as ultimately counter- productive. (His 1989 memoirs was aptly titled Justice Not Vengeance.)

Wiesenthal always believed that his attempts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice were an integral part of the efforts to preserve the memory of the victims. The latter task was of particular importance to him since he considered the survivors, and especially himself, to be representatives of the victims, and as such the bearers of a special obligation to tell the world the story of the Holocaust. In this vein, Wiesenthal was often quoted regarding his belief that in the afterworld the survivors would meet the victims, whose first question would be what the former had done with their lives following liberation. His reply, Wiesenthal said, would be that he did not forget the victims.

Simon Wiesenthal wrote extensively about his work. In 1946 he published KZ Mauthausen, then Grossmufti: Grossagent der Achse ("Head Mufti: agent of the Axis", 1947), I jagte Eichmann ("I Hunted Eichmann", 1961) and The Murderers Among Us (1967). Among his more noteworthy books is The Sunflower (1970), in which he deals with the question of forgiveness, asking whether a Jew under Nazi occupation could have and should have forgiven a dying Nazi who had confessed his crimes. Wiesenthal posed the question to leading Jewish and non-Jewish philosophers whose responses constitute the second half of the book.

Over the years, Wiesenthal was the recipient of many honours, doctorates and prizes; last year, he was appointed an honorary KBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours. In 1977, a multifaceted Jewish defence, education, commemoration, and human rights agency, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was established in Los Angeles by Rabbi Marvin Hier. Wiesenthal agreed to allow the centre to bear his name on the condition that it not confine itself to the commemoration of the Holocaust, but that it pursue an activist agenda on Holocaust- related issues.

In his latter years, Wiesenthal was attacked for his apparent lack of vigour in pursuing the case of the former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, later President of Austria, as well as for his failure to uncover the whereabouts of Josef Mengele (who, it emerged in 1985, had accidentally drowned six years earlier, in Brazil) and other leading Nazi war criminals. This last criticism, in particular, is perhaps the greatest compliment to Wiesenthal's efforts, since a more careful assessment of his operation and the means at his disposal would have made clear that in many cases the Nazis for whom he searched had far more resources and support than Wiesenthal ever enjoyed. These expectations and the fear he engendered among escaped Nazis constitute the best testament to Wiesenthal's impact. If we add the fact that he has been an inspiration to people of different faiths all over the world, and especially to the survivors and their children, one can understand how in certain respects he became a living legend.

A story which reflects his unique status relates to a visit he made many years ago to the Rabbi of Gur, a venerated leader of one of the largest Hassidic sects. Even non-observant visitors always wear a skullcap in the presence of the rabbi, but Wiesenthal for some reason had forgotten to bring one. When he apologised to the rabbi for this indiscretion, however, the latter reassured him that he was not offended, since Wiesenthal's deeds constituted "an appropriate headcovering". It could be said that Simon Wiesenthal's life served as a protective covering for us all.

Efraim Zuroff

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