Holocaust survivor was nemesis of Nazis

When Simon Wiesenthal died yesterday in his sleep at age 96 in Vienna, Austria, he had outlasted almost all of the thousands of former Nazis whose dossiers he meticulously collected in his Vienna offices. But surviving them had not been Mr. Wiesenthal's goal. Making them pay for their atrocities was.

Partly because of dogged pursuit by Mr. Wiesenthal, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, many did pay, including the Gestapo officer who arrested Anne Frank in her secret attic, the commandant of two death camps in Poland and, most spectacularly, Adolf Eichmann, the industrious technocrat who used his knack for solving problems to contrive the mechanics of the Nazis' Final Solution.


Mr. Wiesenthal's activities have been credited with drawing attention to the Holocaust when the world was inclined to forget and with helping to bring hundreds of former Nazis to justice.

To many, he was known as "the Nazi hunter," as relentless in his pursuit of his prey as the perpetrators of the Holocaust had been in theirs.


"He not only tracked down quite a few Nazis, but he made the pursuit of Nazi war criminals something that was front and center," Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust scholar at Emory University, said yesterday. "He also made clear that this wasn't about vengeance but about bringing murderers to justice. He was talking about it when others were not."

Mr. Wiesenthal saw his hunt for Nazi war criminals as an admonishment that would outlive him and them.

"The only value of nearly five decades of my work is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow that they will never rest," he told The Jerusalem Post in 1994.

Expressions of appreciation rang out yesterday from the United States, Europe and Israel.

"The world has lost a great man," Harvey "Bud" Meyerhoff, former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which built the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, said yesterday from his home in Baltimore. "He was an inspiration for everyone and did a remarkable job in pursuing those who had persecuted the Holocaust."

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which was named in his honor, called Mr. Wiesenthal "the conscience of the Holocaust."

'He did not forget'

"When the Holocaust ended in 1945 and the whole world went home to forget, he alone remained behind to remember," Rabbi Hier said on the center's Web site. "He did not forget. He became the permanent representative of the victims, determined to bring the perpetrators of the history's greatest crime to justice."


Mr. Wiesenthal, who lost as many as 90 members of his family in the Holocaust, did not sidestep detractors or controversies. Some criticized him for suggesting that in addition to 6 million Jewish victims, the Holocaust had claimed 5 million non-Jews. His assertion was problematic in definition and arithmetic, and many thought that Mr. Wiesenthal had made the claim to stoke non-Jewish support of his efforts.

Dispute with Wiesel

Some critics, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, accused Mr. Wiesenthal of grandstanding, of overstating the number of Nazis he helped collar (he claimed 1,100) and his role in their capture.

(Mr. Wiesenthal was said to be disappointed when the Nobel Prize committee awarded Mr. Wiesel the Peace Prize in 1986 rather than sharing it between them.)

Mr. 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, which investigates Nazi war crimes, said Mr. Wiesenthal, who spoke several languages, had to try to attract attention to to spur governments to address war crimes.

"Of course, he was a self-promoter," Mr. Mendelsohn said, "but when no one is listening, you have to be."


Mr. Wiesenthal also was criticized, particularly harshly by the World Jewish Congress, for his perceived failure to produce evidence linking Austrian diplomat (and later president) Kurt Waldheim, a former United Nations secretary-general, to Nazi atrocities in Yugoslavia, where he was an officer in the German army during World War II.

Despite his worldwide fame, Mr. Wiesenthal lived simply.

"I saw him last month in Vienna in the same place where he's been as long as I've known him," Mr. Mendelsohn said, "a modest garden apartment in the far, far suburbs of Vienna. One bedroom, a large living room-dining room area and a small kitchen. There's nothing there."

Mr. Wiesenthal was born Dec. 31, 1908, in Buczacz, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now in western Ukraine. His father, a wholesale jeweler, was killed while he was a soldier in World War I, and the young Simon witnessed atrocities against the local population, particularly Jews, by rampaging Ukrainian, Polish and Russian forces.

Because of his religion, he was denied admission to a local technical college but in 1932 was awarded a degree in architectural engineering by the Technical University of Prague in Czechoslovakia. He went to work for an architectural firm in Ukraine and married Cyla Mueller in 1936.

After Germany and the Soviet union signed a nonaggression pact in 1939, the Soviets began a purge of Jewish merchants and professionals in Ukraine. Mr. Wiesenthal's stepfather was arrested, and his stepbrother was shot. Mr. Wiesenthal barely avoided execution at the hands of the Ukrainians.


When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he was swept up by the SS. He was moved among several concentration camps, narrowly missed numerous mass killings, attempted suicide twice to avoid torture and endured forced marches.

When he was liberated from the Mauthausen camp in Austria by American forces on May 5, 1945, the 6-foot-tall Mr. Wiesenthal weighed less than 100 pounds.

Reunited with wife

Reunited with his wife - each thought the other was dead - Mr. Wiesenthal offered to describe everything he had witnessed to a U.S. Army section investigating war crimes. The evidence was used in prosecutions.

That effort led to his forming the Jewish Historic Documentation Center, a group of volunteers who assembled evidence for trials. But as the Cold War deepened, governments lost their appetite for prosecuting war criminals. Mr. Wiesenthal's volunteers drifted away, his money dried up, and he closed the center in 1954.

During that period, he received credible information that Eichmann, one of his most prized targets, was in Argentina. He shared his information with the FBI and the Israelis, and the Israelis abducted Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960. He was tried in Jerusalem and was executed in 1962.


Some have questioned whether his information about Eichmann was useful in his capture, but no one doubts that Mr. Wiesenthal's was a lonely voice insisting on calling Nazis to account.

Encouraged by the success in tracking down Eichmann, Mr. Wiesenthal opened the Jewish Documentation Center in a cramped, three-room office in Vienna, where he developed tips, researched records and tracked down witnesses. That led to the prosecution of hundreds of war criminals and ignited public zeal in seeing justice done.

Among his notable successes were the 1963 capture of Karl Silberbauer, who arrested Anne Frank (and was then a police inspector in Austria) and the 1966 arrest in Brazil of Franz Stangl, commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps.

"He was extraordinary in his ability to summarize and encapsulate and to analyze and to understand," said Mr. Mendelsohn, Mr. Wiesenthal's friend. "He had extraordinary courage and a moral courage that few others had."

Mr. Wiesenthal's wife died in 2003. Their daughter, Paulinka Kreisberg, lives in Israel, where Mr. Wiesenthal will be buried Friday. A memorial service will be held Wednesday in Vienna.