Simon Wiesenthal

Background

As Germany rises from the deprivations of the First World War and the Great Depression, the rest of the world tries to ignore the threat posed by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. But when Hitler launches his invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 the world finally realises that the Germans will not be appeased. Two days later Britain and France declare war on Germany.

The Nazi leaders seek to introduce a 'Third Reich' governed by an Aryan "master race" that is free from "undesirables" and "decadents" like Jews, Gipsies, Slavs, homosexuals and communists. In 1942 they finalise a plan for an Endlosung (Final Solution) to "the Jewish question."

After the war in Europe ends on 7 May 1945 with Germany's unconditional surrender the hunt begins for Nazi war criminals. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 31 December 1908 in Buczacz (now Buchach), 130 km southeast of Lvov in present-day Ukraine. Then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, sovereignty over the region shifts to Poland after the First World War and the Soviet Union in 1939.

Wiesenthal's family are Orthodox Jews. His father, a commodities wholesaler, is killed in action during the First World War. His mother remarries.

Wiesenthal graduates from the local grammar school in 1928 but is prevented from enrolling in the Polytechnic Institute in Lvov because of quota restrictions on Jewish students. He studies instead at the Technical University of Prague in Czechoslovakia.

1932 - Wiesenthal completes a degree in architectural engineering. He will go on to practice architecture in Lvov.

1933 - In Germany, meanwhile, the Nazi Party reaches a position from which it can seize power on 30 January when Hitler is appointed chancellor. Germany's last election until after the Second World War is held on 5 March. Though the Nazis win only 44% of the vote Hitler persuades the Reichstag (parliament) to pass the Enabling Law, allowing him to govern independently for four years.

1936 - Wiesenthal marries Cyla Mueller. The couple had first met at grammar school.

1939 - On 23 August Germany and the Soviet Union sign a nonaggression pact. Under the pact Eastern Europe is carved up into German and Soviet spheres of influence, with the USSR claiming Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, part of the Balkans and half of Poland.

Soviet troops subsequently occupy Lvov and begin to purge Jews from positions of influence in business, management and other professions. Wiesenthal's stepfather is arrested by the Soviet secret police (the NKVD, or People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs - the forerunner of the KGB, or Komitet Gosudarstvenoi Bezopasnosti) and eventually dies in prison. His stepbrother is shot.

Forced out of architecture, Wiesenthal takes work as a mechanic in a bedspring factory.

He later saves himself, his wife, and his mother from deportation to Siberia by bribing a NKVD commissar.

German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.

Poland is overrun within a month. Denmark and Norway fall in April 1940. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France are invaded the following month. By the middle of June 1940 France has surrendered.

1941 - Germany invades the Soviet Union on 22 June, breaking the nonaggression pact. As the Germans march east they systematically exterminate the Jewish communities in their path.

Wiesenthal escapes execution but is imprisoned, initially at the Janowska concentration camp just outside Lvov, then with his wife at the forced labour camp attached to a railway repair yard.

Speaking later about his narrow escape from execution, Wiesenthal says, "What I saw for the first time was systematic extermination that had no motive except to kill every Jew, starting with the ones who looked the most dangerous to Hitler. And done by people who took real pleasure in killing us."

1942 - On 20 January the Nazis complete the planning for the Endlosung (Final Solution), the extermination of the Jews, Gipsies, Slavs, homosexuals, communists, and other "undesirables" and "decadents" in death camps run by the Schutz-Staffel (SS), Hitler's personal guard, and controlled by the Gestapo, the secret state police. About six million European Jews die in the following 'Holocaust'.

Speaking at meeting outside Berlin, SS officer Reinhard Heydrich says, "As a first step in the 'Final Solution' of the Jewish question, it is first of all planned to put the Jews to work in the East. This will already eliminate a large number through natural wastage. The remnant that will have to be dealt with appropriately."

Most (about 4.5 million) of those to be killed come from Poland and the Soviet Union. About 125,000 are German Jews.

The Holocaust also claims about 500,000 Gipsies, between 10,000 and 25,000 homosexuals, 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, up to 3.5 million non-Jewish Poles, between 3.5 million and six million other Slavic civilians, as many as four million Soviet prisoners of war, and up to 1.5 million political dissidents.

Wiesenthal's mother is sent to her death in the Belzec extermination camp to the northwest of Lvov in August 1942. By September, most of Wiesenthal's and his wife's relatives have been killed. All told, 89 members of the extended Wiesenthal family die in the Holocaust.

Cyla Wiesenthal is able to escape and survive after Simon provides the Polish underground with information about the railway system in exchange for false papers identifying her as a Pole named 'Irene Kowalska'. She lives in Warsaw for two years then works in the Rhineland as a forced labourer. Her true identity is never uncovered.

1943 - In October Wiesenthal escapes from the labour camp where he has been held. For almost a year he will remain in hiding in and around Lvov.

Meanwhile, the war turns against Germany in the winter of 1942-43 when the Sixth Army is defeated at Stalingrad (now Volgograd). By the end of 1943, the Soviets have broken through the German siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic.

The Western Allies take Africa in 1943, land in Sicily and Italy, and prepare for the 'D-Day' landings on the Normandy beaches in France on 6 June 1944 and the invasion of Germany six months later. Soviet troops, meanwhile, advance from the east.

1944 - Wiesenthal is recaptured on 13 June and sent back to the Janowska concentration camp.

However, with the Soviet troops advancing, the camp is abandoned the following month and a group of 34 prisoners, including Wiesenthal, marched west by the camp's guards, trekking over 1,300 km from concentration camp to concentration camp before stopping at the Mauthausen camp, 20 km southeast of Linz in upper Austria.

1945 - By April an Allied victory in Europe is certain. On 7 May Germany surrenders.

Nazi war criminals now rush to conceal their crimes or hide their identities. Many seek refuge overseas, fleeing to South America and other destinations. Some are assisted by the Catholic Church, using operatives within the Vatican and a "rat run" through Rome to escape Europe.

Among those to reach South America are Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi bureaucrat responsible for administering the transport of Jews to extermination camps, and Joseph Mengele, the 'Angel of Death' at the Birkenau death camp.

Wiesenthal's ordeal ends on 5 May 1945 when the 11th Armoured Division of the Third United States Army liberates Mauthausen. He is one of the few Janowska prisoners to have survived. The 1.8 metre tall Wiesenthal weighs just 45 kilograms and is close to death.

Once he is sufficiently recovered, Wiesenthal commences what will become his lifelong mission - the identification and prosecution of Nazi war criminals. He begins by compiling a list of 91 Nazis whose crimes he has witnessed and presenting it to the US Commander at Mauthausen. Seventy-five of those on the list will be captured.

Taken on by the War Crimes Section of the US Army, Wiesenthal gathers and prepares evidence that will be used in trials and assists with the arrest of suspects. He also does work for the Army's Office of Strategic Services and Counter-Intelligence Corps and heads the Jewish Central Committee of the US Zone of Austria, a relief and welfare organisation.

"I'll never forget our first case," he later writes of his experience hunting Nazis. "We drove to a small house where an SS man named Schmidt lived. He had been one of our guards, an insignificant little man who looked as anonymous as his name. I walked up to the second floor, found him and arrested him. He didn't even try to resist. He was trembling. So was I, but for a different reason. I was weak from getting up the stairs and from the excitement."

Late in 1945, Wiesenthal and his wife, Cyla, are reunited after finding each other on lists of Holocaust survivors.

1946 - The Wiesenthals' only child, Paulinka, is born. Wiesenthal's first book 'Concentration Camp Mauthausen' is also published during the year.

1947 - Wiesenthal and 30 volunteers open the Jewish Historical Documentation Centre in Linz. The goal of the centre is to identify suspects and gather evidence for use in future war crimes trials.

"No Nazi murderer, however old he may be, will be allowed to die in peace," Wiesenthal later says of his motivation for establishing the centre. "It is important for criminals to know that they are not forgotten. Even 40 years after they committed their crimes, and even though they are thousands of miles from the scene of their crimes, they should not feel safe."

Franz Murer, a former Nazi official known as the 'Butcher of Vilnius' after the Jewish population of the Lithuanian capital was reduced from 80,000 to 250 under his command, is located by Wiesenthal during the year. Murer, who had been living on his farm near Linz, is sent to the Soviet Union, where he serves a seven-year prison term.

1953 - Wiesenthal receives information that Adolf Eichmann is living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, under the alias 'Ricardo Klement'.

The information is passed to the Israeli Government but is contradicted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and cannot be confirmed until 1959.

1954 - The documentation centre in Linz closes due to lack of funds, the impact of the Cold War and a waning of interest in the prosecution of Nazis. All its files are given to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Archives in Israel except for the dossier on Eichmann.

Wiesenthal now works for a Jewish vocational training organisation, arranging language and technical training courses for refugees from Eastern Europe.

1960 - On 11 May Eichmann is kidnapped in Buenos Aires by agents of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, and taken to Israel for trial. He is found guilty of crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity and war crimes and executed on 31 May 1961.

Wiesenthal believes that his information on Eichmann, and persistence in pursuing the case, played a critical role in the capture of the fugitive.

Eichmann's capture "was a teamwork of many who did not know each other," Wiesenthal says in 1972. "I do not know if and to what extent reports I sent to Israel were used."

However, Wiesenthal's contribution is later disputed by Isser Harel, the head of Mossad at the time of Eichmann's capture. Speaking in 1991, Harel says that Wiesenthal had "had no role whatsoever" in the capture of Eichmann. "All the information supplied by Wiesenthal, and in anticipation of the operation, was utterly worthless, and sometimes even misleading or of negative value," he says.

Harel also implies that inaccurate information provided by Wiesenthal had obstructed attempts to locate Josef Mengele.

However, information provided by Wiesenthal does come close to netting Mengele in 1964. Suspecting that Hans Sedlmeier, a close associate of the Mengele family in Bavaria, is in contact with the fugitive, Wiesenthal urges West German authorities to act. But before the authorities can conduct a search Sedlmeier is tipped off by friends on the local police force and is able to conceal letters and other evidence that would have led to Mengele.

Despite Harel's statements, Wiesenthal does work with Mossad during the 1960s, operating under the code name "Theocrat".

1961 - Inspired by the capture of Eichmann, Wiesenthal reopens the Jewish Documentation Centre, this time setting up a three-room office in Vienna. Mossad helps with the establishment of the office and provides Wiesenthal with a retainer of about US$300 a month.

Over the following years Wiesenthal and a handful of staff will identify nearly 1,100 Nazi war criminals, documenting the crimes they had committed and their known or suspected movements since the end of the war.

In 1963 Wiesenthal locates Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer responsible for arresting Anne Frank, the German-Jewish girl sent to her death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and made famous by the posthumous publication of her diary. No charges are laid against Silberbauer, who had been acting on orders, but his confession disproves claims that the Anne Frank diary is a fake.

In 1967 Franz Stangl, a commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps in Poland, is located in Brazil by Wiesenthal. An estimated 800,000 Jews died at Treblinka. Stangl is extradited to West Germany, tried for the deaths of around 900,000 people and sentenced to life imprisonment. He dies in prison on 28 June 1971.

"If I have done nothing else in my life but bring this wicked man to trial, I will not have lived in vain," Wiesenthal says of the capture of Stangl.

A tip-off from Wiesenthal leads to the discovery in the US of Hermine Braunsteiner, a sadistic warder at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland who earned the nickname 'The Stomping Mare' from her habit of stomping inmates to death. Braunsteiner is extradited to Germany in 1973. She is convicted for war crimes and receives a life sentence. Braunsteiner is released in 1996 due to ill-health and dies on 19 April 1999.

Information supplied by Wiesenthal brings to light the wartime record of Valerian D. Trifa, the archbishop of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate in the US. Trifa had been a leader of the fascist Iron Guard in Romania and had helped foment a massacre of Jews in Bucharest during 1941. He is deported to Portugal in August 1984, where he dies three years later.

Former SS officer Josef Schwammberger is tracked to Argentina and extradited to Germany in 1987. Schwammberger is convicted for the killings of prisoners and slave labourers at camps in Poland and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1992. He dies in prison on 3 December 2004.

Speaking later about his work and the difficulties associated with it, Wiesenthal says, "In some cases, the capture was merely a matter of money, like in the case of the Treblinka death camp Chief Commander, Franz Stangl, who lived in Brazil. The Nazis had a lot of money to spend on their new secret lives and new identities in Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina and all across South America. ...

"We needed a lot of money to deal with them. It was really a direct relation: When I had a lot of money, I had more success; the less money I had, the less successful I was."

1967 - Wiesenthal's memoirs, 'The Murderers Among Us', is published. 'The Sunflower' is published in 1970, 'Sails of Hope' in 1972 and 'Justice, Not Vengeance' in 1989.

1977 - The Simon Wiesenthal Centre is founded by two US rabbis in Los Angeles, California, in November.

Though officially unaffiliated with the centre, Wiesenthal describes it as his "legacy". The centre, along with the attached Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and the New York Tolerancenter, promotes Holocaust remembrance and the defence of human rights. Offices of the centre are later opened around the world.

1980 - Wiesenthal is presented the US Congressional Gold Medal, the United States' highest civilian honour, by President Jimmy Carter.

1982 - In June a bomb explodes at the front door of the Wiesenthal's house in Vienna, destroying part of the building. One German and several Austrian neo-Nazis are later arrested for the bombing. The German is sentenced to five years in prison.

1986 - Wiesenthal becomes embroiled in controversy when former United Nations secretary-general and Austrian presidential aspirant Kurt Waldheim is accused of having falsified his war record in order to conceal his involvement in war crimes.

Wiesenthal defends Waldheim, saying that while Waldheim might have known about war crimes there was no evidence to suggest he was personally involved. Waldheim goes on to win the presidency.

Meanwhile, Wiesenthal is awarded the French Legion of Honour by French President Francois Mitterrand.

2003 - Wiesenthal announces that his Nazi-hunting work is complete and retires from the Jewish Documentation Centre.

"I found the mass murderers I was looking for, and I have outlived them all," he tells the Austrian magazine 'Format' in April. "If there are a few I didn't look for, they are now too old and fragile to stand trial. My work is done."

Cyla Wiesenthal dies on 10 November.

2004 - In February Wiesenthal is appointed as an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his work in bringing the perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice.

2005 - Wiesenthal dies in his sleep at his home in Vienna on 20 September.

In a statement issued the same day, Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and a founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre says, "Simon Wiesenthal will be remembered as the conscience of the Holocaust. When the Holocaust ended in 1945 and the whole world went home to forget, he alone remained behind to remember.

"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.

"There was no press conference and no president or prime minister or world leader announced his appointment. He just took the job. It was a job no one else wanted."

Wiesenthal's body is taken to Israel and buried in Herzliya, a town on the Mediterranean coast where his daughter lives.

"Today we are burying the conscience of the Holocaust," Rabbi Hier says before the funeral ceremony. "Nobody did more to keep alive the memories of the Holocaust than Simon Wiesenthal."

Comment

Simon Wiesenthal often declared that in unearthing Nazi war criminals he sought "justice, not revenge." Justice, not revenge, or mass murder for that matter. Justice, not revenge: a civilised response to the hideous crimes of an ethically bankrupt system. Though Wiesenthal was far more interested in individuals than systems, as noted by one of his biographers, Hella Pick, in her obituary for Wiesenthal published in the Guardian Unlimited on 20 September 2005:

"Simon Wiesenthal's popular image was of an implacable Nazi-hunter who was determined to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Holocaust, including the 'desk murderers' as much as the executioners themselves. But in reality his reach was far wider. Guided by an unwavering moral code, Wiesenthal insisted that individuals, never groups or nations, must be held to account for their actions. He railed against the concepts of collective guilt, collective punishment and collective forgiveness: post-Holocaust generations had to be convinced that individuals must bear the responsibility for guarding against the resurgence of neo-Nazism and fascism."

Personal responsibility; justice, not revenge; far more than any victim of the Holocaust received from the hand of a Nazi war criminal.

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