Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Behind the Headlines Simon Wiesenthal: a Personal Tribute

August 20, 1980
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

When President Carter awarded a special congressional gold medal to Simon Wiesenthal in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 5, this writer’s thoughts went back to another time and place almost 35 years to the day. It was a few weeks after the liberation when a count, hollow-eyed concentration camp survivor introduced himself as “Engineer Simon Wiesenthal” and offered his help to the John Distribution Committee director in Austria.

Wiesenthal immediately reported that in the Salzburg railroad yards were several freight cars containing the Nazi boat of the Hungarian Jewish community and urged that the U.S. Army be asked to protect these freight cars because they contained jewelry, paintings, gold, currency and other valuables and were in imminent danger of being stolen.

Impressed by Wiesenthal’s insistence that these assets of the murdered Jews of Hungary should be given to the organizations aiding survivors, the writer reported the matter to the army authorities. Of course, Wiesenthal knew exactly what he was talking about then as he does now.

The army did act to protect the freight cars and eventually the contents were sold and auctioned by international refugee agencies. The proceeds became part of tens of millions of dollars subsequently distributed as reparations on the basis of 90 percent to the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee and 10 percent to non-Jewish refugee agencies.


In the three-and-a-half decades since that time, Wiesenthal became a world figure described by President Carter as a human being with “incomparable courage and conviction whose presence honors this House and the principles for which it stands. “For this writer, no relationship in 45 years of service to the American Jewish community surpassed in professional and emotional significance the on going friendship and cooperation with Wiesenthal.

This relationship has created a special opportunity to evaluate and understand Simon Wiesenthal the man — his philosophy, and his perceptive understanding of the world of the second half of the 20th Century.


Wiesenthal has a dual mission: to bring to justice the principal Nazi murderers and to educate the younger generation of the free world at every opportunity about the Holocaust. He played an indispensable role in the successful effort last year to persuade the Parliament of West Germany to extend the statute of limitations so that Nazi criminals who have not yet been brought to trial will be unable to go scot free.

He constantly reminds Jewish audiences especially, that there were II million civilian victims murdered by the Nazis — six million Jews and five million Christians.

The austere office of Wiesenthal’s Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna, which is the focal point of his international efforts to apprehend Nazi criminals, belies his world-wide prestige. How is the work of the Vienna Center financed?

A principal source of income is from voluntary gifts of the Dutch people — primarily non-Jews. Curiously, only two Jewish Federations in the U.S. (Miami and Chicago) make allocations to the Center, which incidentally is on the Internal Revenue Service approved list of tax-exempt organizations.

Wiesenthal has strong ties to Israel. When he retires, he intends to turn over his precious files to the appropriate Israeli body. His wife, who is rarely seen in public, is quietly supportive of her renowned husband and stoically accepts the continued threats on his life. She is a relative of Dr. Sigmund Freud.


If one can judge a man by his enemies, Chancellor Bruno Kreisky of Austria frequently bitterly attacks Wiesenthal, despite Kreisky’s own Jewish origins. The USSR and its satellites often castigate him. Why? Perhaps because of his outspoken anti-Communism, his exposure of former Nazis in high places in the East German government, and his well-known close relationship with Israel and the United States.

Naturally, Wiesenthal has been gratified that the USSR has permitted large numbers of Jews to emigrate, but be points out that even if the Soviets permitted 50,000 a year to emigrate every year as in 1979 — and this year it is about half that rate — the total Jewish population in the USSR will not be reduced because of the natural increase.

Wiesenthal, therefore, expresses deep concern that for too little has been done by the major Jewish organizations to reach out to the millions of Soviet Jews who will never be able to emigrate, and in another generation or two will lose their Jewish identity.

Although Wiesenthal is the world’s best known Nazi hunter, during a recent discussion in Vienna he made clear to this writer that he does not regard all 10 million Nazi Party members as war criminals. He does expose those in current public office and especially determinedly pursues arch criminals like Dr. Josef Mengele including many in this country who are clearly personally responsible for moss murder.


Is this the description of a saint? By no means. Wiesenthal takes tremendous, if pardonable, pride in his achievements, and very much enjoys the recognition he has received: the naming of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles; the highest civilian honor given to him by the Dutch government in 1979; and now, the gold medal by the U.S. Congress and President Carter.

There is sometimes almost a naive quality about this world figure. When the ceremony at the White House was over and Wiesenthal’s friends gathered around to congratulate and embrace him, he asked, “Was my speech all right? Did you like it?”

Yes, they liked it, and their admiration for Wiesenthal and his life’s work has left an indelible mark an everyone privileged to know this unique personality of our time.

Recommended from JTA