Simon Wiesenthal, who died in Vienna on Tuesday at age 96, often was called the “conscience of the Holocaust.” The legendary Nazi-hunter, who lost 89 members of his and his wife’s families in the Shoah, spent more than half a century collecting information on Nazi war criminals so they could be called to account for their crimes.
“Simon Wiesenthal showed the world what one person determined to do the right thing can accomplish,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, whose mission is to combat anti-Semitism and track down remaining Nazi criminals.
“His wife once told him that he wasn’t just married to her, he was married to the 6 million,” Hier said, “and in a way, she was right.”
Working with a small staff from a cramped office in Vienna, Wiesenthal sifted through tens of thousands of documents and followed countless leads, compiling archives on Nazi criminals.
But Wiesenthal didn’t personally track down Nazis the way the world thinks he did, experts on the issue say.
“I don’t think he worked as a Nazi hunter as the Hollywood image would like it to be the case,” said Tom Segev, an Israeli historian and columnist for Ha’aretz. “He cultivated that myth because it gave a lot of weight to himself as a symbol, and also to his work.”
Wiesenthal’s importance “is not that he hunted down Nazis, but that he made a very important contribution to the culture of memory and in the fight against anti-Semitism,” said Segev, author of “The Seventh Million,” an examination of the role the Holocaust played in the early years of the State of Israel.
Wiesenthal, who was liberated from Mauthausen in 1945, said his work stemmed from what many call “survivor’s guilt.”
“Justice Not Vengeance” — the title of his 1989 autobiography — served as Wiesenthal’s motto and guiding principle.
“Survival is a privilege which entails obligations,” he wrote.
“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.”
Wiesenthal began gathering and preparing evidence on Nazi atrocities for the U.S. Army’s War Crimes Section immediately after World War II.
Encouraged by Israeli agents’ capture in 1960 of Adolf Eichmann, the Gestapo technocrat who had supervised implementation of the Nazis’ “Final Solution,” Wiesenthal opened his Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna and devoted his life to hunting war criminals. An architect by training, at first he had few financial resources or political allies in his Nazi-hunting work.
Despite the popular perception, experts say Wiesenthal was not instrumental in tracking down Eichmann. Israel executed Eichmann in 1961 after convicting him of war crimes.
“He deserves no credit whatsoever for Eichmann’s capture,” Efraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office told Israel Radio. “People credited him for successes that were not his, and, let’s say, he did not rush to correct them. But there is no doubt that this person led the efforts and became a symbol. He is one of the few Jewish heroes out there.”
According to the center’s Web site, in 1953 Wiesenthal passed information to Israeli officials regarding Eichmann’s whereabouts in Argentina, at a time when the FBI believed Eichmann was in Syria.
High-profile fugitives that Wiesenthal did help find were Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer who arrested Anne Frank; and Franz Stangl, commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor concentration camps in Poland, according to the center’s Web site.
He also spoke out loudly over the decades 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.
Wiesenthal’s prominent public stand sparked threats, hate-mail and even a bomb on his doorstep, set by neo-Nazis in 1982.
“He took the Holocaust out of its Jewish limitations and made it a source of energy in the universal struggle against racism and for human rights,” Segev said. “That’s probably more important than his role in locating Nazi criminals.”
In 2003, in frail health, Wiesenthal said his work was complete.
“I found the mass murderers I was looking for, and I have outlived all of them,” he told an Austrian magazine. “If there’s a few I didn’t look for, they are now too old and fragile to stand trial. My work is done.”
The center that bears his name continues to search for World War II criminals; it currently operates the Operation Last Chance program, which offers rewards for information on those suspected of Nazi-era crimes.
The long list of awards and honors Wiesenthal received testifies to the power and importance of his battle.
“Mr. Wiesenthal has been untiring in his service to the Jewish communities in the U.K. and elsewhere by helping to right at least some of the awful wrongs of the Holocaust,” Foreign Minister Jack Straw said when Great Britain awarded Wiesenthal an honorary knighthood last year. “If there is one name which symbolizes this vital coming to terms with the past, it is Simon Wiesenthal’s.”
“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.
Wiesenthal was born on New Year’s Eve, 1908, in the town of Buczacz, now in Ukraine. He 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, Wiesenthal and his wife barely survived the Nazi Holocaust.
Cyla was able to elude death or capture by masquerading as a Polish Catholic. Simon was held in a series of labor and death camps. When an American armored unit liberated him from Mauthausen on May 5, 1945, he weighed less than 100 pounds.
Both he and Cyla thought the other was dead. They were reunited later in 1945 and remained a devoted couple until Cyla’s death in 2003.
Tributes to Wiesenthal poured in Tuesday from world leaders and others.
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski issued a statement praising Wiesenthal as “a man who did a huge service for the world’s modern history.”
“Simon Wiesenthal and the institute he created played an absolutely vital role in showing the mechanisms of the Holocaust, pointing to those guilty of this genocide,” Kwasniewski said. “I hope that this message will be universally accepted by politicians, societies and not just in the context of the Holocaust, but all crimes against human rights which take place in the modern world.”
JTA Foreign Editor Peter Ephross in New York and correspondent Dan Baron in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.