Simon Wiesenthal - biography
Simon Wiesenthal KBE (December 31, 1908 – September 20, 2005) was an Austrian Holocaust survivor who became famous after World War II for his work as a Nazi hunter.
Following four and a half years in the German concentration camps such as 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. In 1947, he co-founded the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz, Austria, in order to gather information for future war crime trials. Later he opened the 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 September 23. 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 his honor.
Recent biographers such as Tom Segev and Guy Walters have noted that Wiesenthal frequently lied about his own background and exploits, but have also credited Wiesenthal for pursuing justice for Holocaust victims, particularly at a time when the events of the Holocaust were downplayed.
With the outbreak of the World War I in 1914, his father, a reservist 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 Müller, 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 from high school in 1927, he was denied admission to the Polish Lwów Polytechnic because of quota restrictions on Jewish students. In 1929, he attended the Czech Technical University in Prague where he was highly regarded as a raconteur. Although Wiesenthal claimed he graduated in 1932 and most biographies repeat his claim, he did not complete his degree.
In 1934, he apprenticed to a building engineer in the Ukrainian SSR, spending a few weeks in Kharkiv and Kiev and a further two years in the Black Sea port of Odessa. Returning to Galicia in late 1935, Wiesenthal claimed he was finally allowed to enter Lwów Polytechnic and tried to earn the advanced degree that would allow him to practice architecture in Poland. However, Lwów archives have no record of his having studied there. According to later biographies, following his marriage to Cyla in 1936, he opened his own architectural office in Lviv where he specialized in elegant villas, which wealthy Polish Jews were building, despite the threats of Nazism to the west. He maintained he finished his final job a week before the German invasion, which began on September 1, 1939. However, Polish records indicate he never registered or worked as a builder or architect and the résumé Wiesenthal himself wrote at the end of the war stated that he was working as a supervisor in a Lviv furniture factory from 1935 to December 1939.
World War II
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, Lviv and the rest of western Ukraine was annexed by the Soviet Union on September 17, 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 so-called Polish enemies of the people that followed the Soviet occupation of Lviv. He bribed a NKVD commissar to prevent the deportation of himself, his wife and his mother to a Gulag labor camp in Siberia. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Wiesenthal and his family were captured.
As recounted in Wiesenthal's memoir, The Murderers Among Us, written with Joseph Wechsberg, 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 Lviv. This account is contradicted by documentation. In 1945, Wiesenthal testified to war-crimes investigators that he had been arrested on July 13, after the executions had ceased, and managed to escape "through a bribe" before the executions resumed.
From the ghetto, Wiesenthal’s mother was transported, along with other Jewish women, by freight train to the extermination camp of Bełżec where she perished in August 1942. Around the same time, Cyla Wiesenthal found out that her mother had been shot on her front porch in Buczacz by a Ukrainian policeman while being evicted from her home. Cyla and Simon Wiesenthal lost 89 relatives during the Holocaust.
In late 1941, Wiesenthal and his wife were first imprisoned in the Janowska Street camp in the suburbs of Lwów , where they were forced to work at the Lviv Railroad Repair Yard where Simon painted Swastikas and Eagle Shields. The head SS soldier was Heinrich Gunthert, who 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. The German senior inspector at the workshop, Adolf Kohlrautz, who was secretly anti-Nazi, gave him two pistols to hide in his office and kept them a secret.
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, Paulinka, in 1946.
According to Wiesenthal, on April 20, 1943, the Janowska guards decided to shoot 54 Jews in celebration of Hitler's 54th birthday. Two SS guards picked Wiesenthal and two other inmates and took them to the execution site. Wiesenthal remembers looking at Gunthert and Gunthert's shrugging his shoulders at him, and the three men were lined up with other prisoners who were then stripped and led through the Hose, a 6-to-7-ft.-wide passage leading to an area of sandpits where numerous bodies lay. The prisoners were lined up with their hands behind their necks. Five SS men and the SS commander came walking out with submachine guns. Wiesenthal heard shots and counted five while one prisoner fell. Wiesenthal stopped counting, and men kept falling. They were the only three men left when the loudspeaker rang out, "Wiesenthal is needed at the front." At the front of the camp stood Kohlrautz who had convinced the camp commander it was essential to keep Wiesenthal alive to paint posters with the message "Wir lieben unseren Führer!" ("We love our Leader!"). He was saved, again. On October 2, 1943, according to Wiesenthal, Kohlrautz warned him that the camp and its prisoners were shortly to be liquidated. Kohlrautz gave him and a friend passes to visit a stationery shop in town, accompanied by a Ukrainian guard. They managed to escape out the back while the Ukrainian waited at the front. There is no corroboration for the above account. In Wiesenthal’s testimony to the War crime investigators in May 1945, he does not mention these incidents or Kohlrautz’s part in them, and neither were the events included in an affidavit he made in August 1954, recounting his wartime experiences. He did, however, mention senior inspector Kohlrautz in both stating that he was killed in the battle for Berlin in April 1945. Wiesenthal later told his biographers that Kohlrautz had been killed on the Russian front in 1944. After his escape in 1943 he joined the Polish underground where his experience 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 and interned in Gross-Rosen, a camp near Wrocław. According to Wiesenthal, he was working in the quarry when a startled guard dropped a rock on his foot and he was hospitalised. After he had his big toe amputated and his foot became gangrenous, 6,000 prisoners from the camp were evacuated to Chemnitz. Using a broom handle for a walking stick he was one of 4,800 who survived the 170-mile march. From Chemnitz the prisoners were marched to Mauthausen concentration camp, arriving on February 15, 1945. Wiesenthal had collapsed in the snow, and, when lorries arrived to collect those who had died on the march, he was picked up and taken to the crematorium. When it was noticed that he was still alive he was transferred to the "death block" for the mortally ill. In 1961, Wiesenthal was interviewed about his war years for the Yad VaShem archives. He claimed that the gangrene from his foot had spread up to his knee and he lay in a bed, unable to get up for the three months until the end of the war, surviving on 200 calories a day. When Mauthausen was liberated on May 5, 1945, he walked out to greet the Americans.
At the time of his liberation, Wiesenthal stood at 1.80 m (5 ft, 11 in) and weighed less than 45 kg (99 lb.). As soon as his health improved, Wiesenthal claimed he began working for the U.S. Army, gathering documentation for the Nazi war crimes trials. Wiesenthal’s own résumé does not mention this work for the Americans but lists his occupation at the time as the vice-chairman of the Jewish Central Committee for the U.S. zone, based in Linz, Austria. Its task was to draw up lists of survivors that other survivors could consult in their hunt for relatives.
He was also president of the Paris-based International Concentration Camp Organisation and was involved with the Berihah, who smuggled Jews out of Europe to Palestine. In February 1947, he and 30 other volunteers founded the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz 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 after compiling 3,289 reports. 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. Wiesenthal was known to be helping in the manhunt for the former Nazi official but the extent of his involvement with Eichmann's capture remains disputed. He was invited by Yad Vashem to talk about his part in tracking Eichmann down, but he failed to mention that his whole correspondence had gone through the Israeli embassy and that Israeli intelligence had been involved. Wiesenthal’s claims angered Isser Harel, then-head of the Mossad, who published his own memoirs in 1971 in which he made no mention of Wiesenthal. Harel's account has been disputed at book length, but Wiesenthal's contributions to Eichmann’s capture have never been confirmed. Nonetheless, his work surrounding Eichmann's wife and children however might have proved essential in keeping the hunt for him alive.
Important to this and other accusations is 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. One such person is Elie Wiesel who took issue with Wiesenthal's efforts to recognize the non-Jewish victims of the Nazi regime.
After Eichmann's 1962 execution in Israel, Wiesenthal reopened the Jewish Documentation Center, which began to focus on other cases. The Center was funded in part by the Israeli Mossad intelligence agency, who also paid Wiesenthal a monthly stipend of $300 for about 10 years according to Tom Segev.
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 the capture of Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps, and Hermine Braunsteiner-Ryan, a former Aufseherin (literally, "(female overseer") living in the Queens borough of New York City who had ordered and participated in the torture and murder of thousands of women and children at Majdanek. Braunsteiner's capture led to the establishment of the U.S. Office of Special Investigations to investigate Nazi activity within the U.S.
Austrian politics and later life
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 tended to be 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 the Gestapo to survive. Wiesenthal labeled the claim ridiculous, sued Kreisky for libel and won.
Over the years, Wiesenthal received many death threats. In 1982, a bomb placed by German and Austrian neo-Nazis exploded outside his house in Vienna, Austria.
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, he announced his retirement, claiming that he had found the mass murderers he had been looking for and said: "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." And he added that 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, Prior to his retirement, Wiesenthal was also believed to be working on the case of Aribert Heim, one of the most notorious and wanted Nazi concentration-camp doctors.
Wiesenthal spent his last years in Vienna, where his wife, Cyla, died of natural causes on November 10, 2003, at age 95. Wiesenthal died 2 years later on September 20, 2005 at the age of 96. They are survived by their daughter, Paulinka Kriesberg, and three grandchildren. Wiesenthal was buried in Herzliya, Israel.
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[ing] 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 the Simon-Wiesenthal-Gasse, formerly Ichmanngasse. The previous name honored Franz Ichmann, a songwriter in the early 20th century and card-carrying member of the Nazi party.
In 2010 Wiesenthal was honoured by a commemorative stamp, a joint issue by the postal administrations of Austria and Israel; first day of issue was June 14, 2010.
British author Guy Walters has characterized Wiesenthal as "a liar" and written that he would "concoct outrageous stories about his war years and make false claims about his academic career. There are so many inconsistencies between his three main memoirs and between those memoirs and contemporaneous documents that it is impossible to establish a reliable narrative from them. Wiesenthal’s scant regard for the truth makes it possible to doubt everything he ever wrote or said." Daniel Finkelstein has described Walters' research as "impeccable" and reported that the Wiener Library supports his re-evaluation of Wiesenthal. The Library's director Ben Barkow stated that "accepting that Wiesenthal was a showman and a braggart and, yes, even a liar, can live alongside acknowledging the contribution he made".
Although Wiesenthal later claimed to have been in 13 concentration camps, including five death camps, he had in fact been in no more than six camps.