SIMON WIESENTHAL celebrated his 90th birthday recently, and if we are lucky, the old Nazi-hunter will be with us for some time to come. And as the gods draw up the tenants' list for this dwindling century's pantheon, I trust they will not omit his name. They might even get a chuckle out of it. "Wiesenthal" is translated as "Valley of the Meadows," which sings of gentle tranquillity hilariously out of harmony with the life and times of the man.
Quite a bit of water has flowed down the Danube since I met him in his cluttered office in Vienna, but some things don't fade. He was in his 80s then, but he bounced into his tiny private room like an athlete -- a portly man with a high forehead, prominent, heavy-lidded eyes, and a straggly mustache. He shook hands with a grip of iron. His voice, richly accented from his native Poland, was penetrating and, when he became excited, which was often, trumpeted with stridence.
I remarked half-jokingly that I was surprised there were no bodyguards around. He chuckled. "Let me tell you something," he said. "If I don't get three death threats in a week, I think I have missed something.
"The old Nazis -- the heroes -- are tired, believe me. The threats come from young people from all over the world. But they have no idea what they are doing. I wish they could see what I have seen. Then they might change. I am an optimist. About my safety, I am a fatalist. If somebody wants to kill me, they would have done it a long time ago."
It wasn't for lack of trying. As a young man during World War II, he was sucked into Hitler's maelstrom of hate. He survived six concentration camps. At least twice he was a trigger-finger's twitch away from death. On the afternoon of July 6, 1941, he was facing a wall with a hundred other Jews marked for execution. One by one, the victims fell under the rifle bullets. Suddenly, church bells rang, and one of the shooters, a Ukrainian, shouted, "Vespers ... enough for now." The shooting stopped, 10 yards from Wiesenthal. A guard who recognized him as a former co-worker spirited him out of the camp.
Again, on April 20, 1943, as the SS planned to celebrate Hitler's birthday with a sacrifice of Jews, he once more faced a firing squad. A supervisor from a factory where Wiesenthal had worked managed to snatch him from the killing field again.
At the beginning of 1945, with the war nearing its bloody end, the Nazis transported some 3,000 Jews from Buchenwald to Mauthausen, Austria's most notorious concentration camp. Crammed together in open, wind-whipped trucks, only 1,200 reached Mauthausen. Wiesenthal was among them.
"I weighed 110 pounds," he told me. "I was so weak, the guards just put me in a hut. I heard one say, 'He is dying anyway, leave him alone.'"
On the morning of May 5, he staggered outside and beheld a wondrous sight -- U.S. tanks and soldiers. "I couldn't believe this," he recalled. "I thought it was a mirage. A miracle."
His odyssey though hell was over. His life's mission was just beginning. After the war, the Western allies were eager to bring Nazi war criminals to trial. As he slowly regained his strength, the man who had witnessed hundreds of cold-blooded murders of helpless men, women and children offered his services to the young, inexperienced U.S. investigators. It was two U.S. officers in the Mauthausen camp who, to their lasting credit, accepted the help of a hollow-eyed, skeletal survivor.
As he wrote in his book "Justice Not Vengeance" 44 years later, "Every one of us survivors was a witness and had the duty to bear witness. Most of all a surviving Jew. The realization that I had remained alive while so many others -- better ones, cleverer ones, more decent ones -- had died, at some moments almost seemed to me an offense against justice. I could restore the balance only by ensuring that the dead received justice."
For more than five decades, he has been wedded to his cause. The path he chose has gained him worldwide renown. Can one hear his name without recalling his help in tracking down Adolf Eichmann, his fingering of the SS officer who arrested Anne Frank and her family in the Amsterdam hiding place, his intricate role in flushing out Eduard Roschmann, the brutal commandant of the Riga ghetto? The list of Nazi criminals he ferreted out in a dozen countries would fill a directory of horror.
"Some people think of me as an avenging angel or a monster with horns," he told me. "Let me tell you a story. Twenty-five years ago, a German student fraternity invited me to speak. My friends said, 'Simon, don't go. They have a lot of anti-Semites there.' I said, 'So what? They are exactly the people who should hear me.' Well, a young heckler interrupted my speech. 'Herr Wiesenthal, we know you very well. You have a Nazi for breakfast, another for lunch, and another for supper.' I said, 'Stop. You know that I am a Jew, and I don't eat meat from pig.'" The audience burst into laughter. "To this day," Wiesenthal chortled, "many of these people are my friends."
Wiesenthal was never a hater. He said, "I just think that people who committed crimes must answer to the law, in a court. Now, when a survivor comes to me and tells me about an SS man or a guard who murdered or tortured people in a camp, I question that accuser very closely, almost like a prosecutor. I say, 'You must be absolutely sure of your evidence. You must be convinced in your heart it is the truth. Then you are like iron.'"
Simon Wiesenthal has received many honors, including the Gold Medal of the Congress of the United States. He has been friends with Sen. Bob Dole and the late Robert Kennedy. On his 80th birthday, then-President Ronald Reagan called him one of the true heroes of the 20th century. He enjoyed cordial rapport with former German chancellor Helmuth Kohl. "I have been criticized for such things," he told me. "My reply is, the Jews need allies, not more enemies."
Through the years, Wiesenthal's Nazi-hunting has drawn controversy, especially in his adoptive homeland. There was the furor in the mid-1970s when Wiesenthal exposed Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky's patronage of a politician with a questionable SS past.
Kreisky viciously -- and ludicrously -- denounced Wiesenthal as a Gestapo "collaborator."
Later, the chancellor recanted.
When the trouble with Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian president and former United Nations secretary-general, boiled up in the mid-1980s over his war service in the Balkans, Wiesenthal refused to brand Waldheim as a "war criminal."
Why, I asked him, had he seemingly defended Waldheim?
"I never defended him," he shouted. "But I never saw sufficient evidence that would make him a criminal. I said he lied about his war period. I said he was not credible and should resign. Of course, he didn't. Maybe he is a war criminal. I don't know. But I saw no proof."
I asked him if anti-Semitism will ever end.
"It is a disease, a sickness of society," he said. "No matter what good things a Jew does, it is never enough. He will be the first to be prosecuted, the first to be blamed when something goes wrong. It is the same with any minority."
Wiesenthal said he didn't believe in any country's collective guilt. "Look," he said. "I believe in the law, because I have experienced what happens when you forget the law. I have tried all my life to bring criminals to justice -- individual criminals, not a whole society."
Married, Wiesenthal has a daughter and three grandchildren. "They mean the world to me," he said warmly.
Could he ever get away from his work? "Never," he said. "I cannot rest until the last Nazi criminal stands before a court."
He paused. Suddenly, he broke into a smile and said, "You know what is my greatest satisfaction in my life? It is when two Nazis have a quarrel, and one tells the other, 'I go to Wiesenthal and tell him about you.'"
At 90, the Nazi-hunter is running out of prey. The henchmen of the Third Reich are dead or dying. It is a safe guess that they have met more peaceful ends than their victims did. That their days and nights have not been entirely free from merited anxiety must be credited in large part to the man whose name means Valley of the Meadows.
I don't know if they fathomed the irony. No matter. The old man who never forgot what should be remembered has earned his winter of content.
Hans Knight, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and editorial writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News, was a translator at the Nuremberg trials for the U.S. War Department.
Pub Date: 03/07/99