VIENNA, Feb. 22 (JTA) — Now 95 and in failing health, the legendary Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal has been called the “conscience of the Holocaust.” Wiesenthal, who lost 89 members of his and his wife’s families in the Holocaust, spent more than half a century tracking down Nazi war criminals so that they could be called to account for their crimes. “Survival is a privilege which entails obligations,” he wrote in his 1989 autobiography “Justice Not Vengeance.” “I am forever asking myself what I can do for those who have not survived. The answer I have found for myself (and which need not necessarily be the answer for every survivor) is: I want to be their mouthpiece, I want to keep their memory alive, to make sure the dead live on in that memory.” “Justice Not Vengeance” served as a motto and guiding principle for a commitment he considered unending. Working with a small staff from an unpretentious three-room office in Vienna, he sifted through thousands of documents and followed countless leads, compiling archives that helped bring some 1,100 Nazi criminals to justice. He was best known, perhaps, for his role in tracking down Adolf Eichmann, the Gestapo technocrat who had supervised the implementation of the “Final Solution.” Wiesenthal helped trace Eichmann to Argentina, where he was abducted by Israeli agents in 1960. Eichmann was tried in Israel in 1961, convicted of war crimes and hanged for his role in the slaughter of 6 million Jews. Though Wiesenthal had begun gathering and preparing evidence on Nazi atrocities for the War Crimes Section of the U.S. Army immediately after World War II, it was the success in bringing Eichmann to justice that prompted him to open his Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna and devote his life to hunting war criminals. Among other high-profile fugitives he helped find were Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer who arrested Anne Frank, and Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor concentration camps in Poland, whom Wiesenthal helped locate in Brazil. Over the decades he also spoke out loudly against neo-Nazism and racism. “The only value of nearly five decades of my work is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow, that they will never rest,” he said in 1994. His prominent public stand sparked threats, hate mail and even a bomb on his doorstep, set by neo-Nazis in 1982. He recently created something of a stir when he said that his work hunting Nazis is over. “I found the mass murderers I was looking for, and I have outlived all of them. If there’s a few I didn´t look for, they are now too old and fragile to stand trial. My work is done,” he told an Austrian magazine. But his legacy remains clear. “The extraordinary thing about Simon Wiesenthal is how little help he had, and how few resources, just a long memory and tremendous determination,” Britain’s ambassador to Austria, John Macgregor, told JTA. The honorary knighthood awarded Wiesenthal last week by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is the latest in a long series of international honors testifying to the power and importance of his determined and often uphill battle. “This gesture not only honors this courageous man and his lonely struggle for justice, but the 6 million Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust whose memory Simon Wiesenthal so valiantly protected for the past 58 years,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish human rights organization founded in 1977. Wiesenthal was born on New Year’s Eve, 1908, in the town of Buczacz, now in Ukraine. He became an architect, married Cyla Mueller in 1936 and worked in an architectural office in Lvov. After suffering under anti-Jewish purges following the non-aggression pact signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939, both Wiesenthal and his wife barely survived the Holocaust. His wife was able to elude capture by masquerading as a Catholic Pole. Simon Wiesenthal was held in a series of labor and death camps. Weighing less than 100 pounds, he was liberated from the Mauthausen camp in Austria by an American armored unit on May 5, 1945. Each thought the other was dead. They were reunited later in 1945 and remained a devoted couple until Cyla Wiesenthal’s death in November.
Ruth Ellen Gruber is JTA’s senior European correspondent. Based in Rome, she travels and writes extensively on Jewish affairs in Italy, Central and Eastern Europe and other European countries. A former UPI reporter, she has also written for The New York Times and the Encyclopaedia Judaica. She is also the author of several books: Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe and Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today.