Simon Wiesenthal Biography

Born Szymon Wiesenthal, December 31, 1908, in Buczacz, Galicia (now part of Ukraine); died of kidney disease, September 20, 2005, in Vienna, Austria. Nazi war crimes investigator and human-rights activist. Simon Wiesenthal survived the Holocaust but lost his mother and many other family members during the ordeal in which six million European Jews were annihilated. After his release from a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, Wiesenthal dedicated his life to hunting down Nazi war criminals and is credited with bringing more than 1,100 offenders to justice. Because of his devotion to the task, he was nicknamed the "deputy for the dead."

Szymon Wiesenthal (later known as Simon) was born on December 31, 1908, in Buczacz, Galicia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now part of Ukraine. His father, Hans, was a sugar wholesaler and an officer in the Austrian Army; he died in combat in 1915. For a Jewish boy, Buczacz was not the safest place to live. Area Jews faced persecution from the Cossacks—peasants who served in the czar's cavalry and lived in communal settlements around Ukraine. When Wiesenthal was ten years old, a Cossack gashed his leg open with a saber as he crossed the street. Wiesenthal faced anti-Semitism again when he was denied admission to the Polytechnic Institute in the Ukrainian city of Lvov because of limits on Jewish enrollment. Instead, he studied architectural engineering at the Technical University in Prague, Czechoslovakia, graduating in 1932.

In 1936, Wiesenthal married his high school sweetheart, Cyla Müller, and opened an architectural practice in Lvov. Within a few years the Soviet Union's Red Army overran the city and began purging Jewish professionals. Wiesenthal's stepfather was arrested and his stepbrother shot. Forced to close his office, Wiesenthal found work in a bedspring factory.

In 1941, invading German soldiers displaced the Russian officers and gathered up the city's Jews for execution. Wiesenthal watched as a soldier shot half the group, gulping swigs of liquor in between executions. Wiesenthal's life was spared when the church bells rang and the soldiers retreated for evening mass. He and his wife were taken to a labor camp where he was given the job of painting swastikas on captured locomotives. In 1942, Wiesenthal's mother was executed. That same year, his wife, who was blonde and could pass for a Pole, was smuggled out of the area by the Polish underground and taken to Warsaw. Later recaptured, she was sent to western Germany to make machine guns for the Nazis.

During the Holocaust, Wiesenthal spent time in a dozen concentration camps and narrowly escaped alive. On April 20, 1943, Wiesenthal was among a group of men selected for execution in honor of German dictator Adolf Hitler's birthday. During the proceedings, an official decided someone needed to paint a swastika banner for the occasion and chose Wiesenthal for the honors, thus sparing his life again. In October of 1943, Wiesenthal persuaded an official to help him escape. Within a few months, though, he was returned to the Janowska camp on the outskirts of Lvov. Wiesenthal tried to kill himself but was revived for interrogation.

By the mid-1940s, the Germans had begun retreating toward Austria as Allied forces advanced. Many prisoners died during the journey, but Wiesenthal survived and on May 5, 1945, U.S. troops rolled into Austria, liberating Wiesenthal and other survivors. His 6-foot frame weighed less than 100 pounds. As soon as Wiesenthal regained his strength, he began gathering evidence for the War Crimes Unit of the U.S. Army in Austria. By the year's end, Wiesenthal was reunited with his wife, whom he feared dead. The next year, their daughter, Paulinka, was born.

While many survivors went back to their careers and tried to move on, Wiesenthal refused to forget the atrocities he had witnessed. He spent the remainder of his life tracking down war criminals, believing his survival gave him an obligation to pursue justice—through the proper channels—for those who had died. Wiesenthal opened the Jewish Documentation Centre to gather information on war criminals and cultivate relationships with contacts around the globe. Located in Austria, the center became a repository of concentration camp testimony.

Following the war, many war criminals fled Europe and tried to blend in by living ordinary lives. Many did not escape Wiesenthal's sleuthing. He was a clever detective, known for his extraordinary memory, and fluent in Polish, German, English, Yiddish, and Russian. Wiesenthal's work led to the arrest of several high-profile war criminals, including Franz Stangl, who was hiding in Brazil. Stangl, a Polish death camp commandant, was extradited to West Germany for trial and died in prison there. Wiesenthal also tracked down Gestapo aide Karl Silberbauer, who had arrested Anne Frank and her family.

Once, Wiesenthal tipped off a New York Times reporter, who hunted down Valerian D. Trifa, who had led a massacre of Jews in Romania. At the time, Trifa was working as an archbishop of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate in Michigan. He was deported to Portugal, where he died. Wiesenthal also located concentration camp guard Hermine Braun-steiner, who had escaped to the United States in the 1950s, married and settled in the New York City borough of Queens. She was infamous for shooting small children and selecting women for the gas chambers. She received a life term.

Many times, Wiesenthal was criticized for his efforts, particularly for his publicity stunts, yet he always downplayed critics. According to the Washington Post, he once remarked, "I'm doing this because I have to do it. I am not motivated by a sense of revenge. Perhaps I was for a short time in the very beginning." Wiesenthal went on to note that he had to do it so people do not forget. "If all of us forgot, the same thing might happen again, in 20 or 50 or 100 years." Besides criticism, Wiesenthal faced real danger, too. In 1982, his Vienna house was fire-bombed, though he escaped unharmed and refused to move. German and Austrian neo-Nazis were later charged.

Wiesenthal wrote several books about his efforts, including 1967's The Murderers Among Us and 1989's Justice, Not Vengeance. His life was also the topic of a 1989 HBO movie, Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story, based on his memoirs. Wiesenthal also promoted human rights. Later in life, he urged war criminal trials for those responsible for genocide in the former Yugoslavia. He also lectured and gave countless interviews, many times denouncing far-right politics. He also reminded world leaders of their duty to combat racism.

Over his lifetime, Wiesenthal was bestowed with many honors, including the establishment of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which is dedicated to Jewish defense, education, and commemoration. Other honors include the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 1980, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000, and honorary British knighthood in 2004.

Wiesenthal's wife predeceased him in 2003. On September 20, 2005, Wiesenthal died of a kidney ailment in Vienna. Survivors include his daughter and three grandchildren. Sources:, (September 20, 2005); Economist, September 24, 2005, p. 102; Independent (London), September 21, 2005; New York Times, September 21, 2005, p. A1, p. C18; People, October 3, 2005, p. 87; Washington Post, September 21, 2005, p. A1, p. A18.

Lisa Frick

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