Simon Wiesenthal

December 31, 1908 – September 20, 2005

“At the end of World War II, thousands of Nazis who participated in the systematic murder of some 6,000,000 Jews and millions of Gypsies, Poles and other “inferior” peoples, slipped through the Allied net and escaped to countries around the globe, where many still live in freedom. Simon Wiesenthal, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, dedicated his life to documenting the crimes of the Holocaust and to hunting down the perpetrators still at large. ‘When history looks back,’ Wiesenthal explained, ‘I want people to know the Nazis weren’t able to kill millions of people and get away with it.’ His work stands as a reminder and a warning for future generations.” [Simon Wiesenthal Center]

Quotes by Simon Wiesenthal:

“The only value of nearly five decades of my work is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow, that they will never rest.”

“When history looks back I want people to know the Nazis weren’t able to kill millions of people and get away with it.”

“For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”

Simon Wiesenthal was born on December 31, 1908 in Buczacz, in what is now the Lvov Oblast section of the Ukraine. Wiesenthal’s father was killed in World War I, His mother took her family and fled to Vienna for a brief period, returning to Buczacz when she remarried. Simon Wiesenthal graduated from the Gymnasium in 1928 and applied for admission to the Polytechnic Institute in Lvov. Turned away because of quota restrictions on Jewish students, he went instead to the Technical University of Prague, from which he received his degree in architectural engineering in 1932. In 1936, Simon married Cyla Mueller and worked in an architectural office in Lvov.

In 1939 when Germany and Russia signed their “non-aggression” pact and agreed to partition Poland between them; when the Russian army occupied Lvov, the Red Army purged Jewish merchants, factory owners and other professionals. Wiesenthal’s stepfather was arrested by the NKVD ( Soviet Secret Police) and eventually died in prison, his stepbrother was shot, and Wiesenthal himself, forced to work as a mechanic in a bedspring factory. He saved himself, his wife, and his mother from deportation to Siberia by bribing an NKVD commissar.

When the Germans displaced the Russians in 1941, a former employee of his, then serving the collaborationist Ukrainian Auxiliary police, helped him to escape execution by the Nazis. He and his wife were assigned to the forced labor camp serving the Ostbahn Works, the repair shop for Lvov’s Eastern Railroad. In August 1942, Wiesenthal’s mother was sent to the Belzec death camp. By September, most of his and his wife’s relatives were dead; a total of eighty-nine members of both families perished.

In autumn 1942, because his wife’s blonde hair gave her a chance of passing as an “Aryan,” Wiesenthal made a deal with the Polish underground. In return for detailed charts of railroad junction points made by him for use by saboteurs, his wife was provided with false papers identifying her as “Irene Kowalska,” a Pole. She lived in Warsaw for two years and then worked in the Rhineland as a forced laborer, without her true identity ever being discovered.

Wiesenthal escaped the Ostbahn camp in October 1943, just before the Germans began liquidating all the inmates. In June 1944, he was recaptured and sent back to Janowska. Knowing they would be sent into combat if they had no prisoners to justify their rear-echelon assignment, the SS guards at Janowska decided to keep the few remaining inmates alive. With 34 prisoners out of an original 149,000, the 200 guards joined the general retreat westward ,away from the advancing Red Army. Very few of the prisoners survived the retreat, which ended at Mauthausen in upper Austria.

Wiesenthal was released from his final camp in Mauthausen, Austria, in May 1945 by a U.S. Army unit. The severely malnourished Wiesenthal, at 6 feet tall, weighed less than 100 lbs by this time. He made his way back to health and was reunited with Cyla by the end of 1945. Dozens of members of his and his wife’s extended families had died in the camps, among the millions of Jews and other ethnic populations who were killed during the Nazi regime.

Simon Wiesenthal then dedicated his life to tracking down and prosecuting former Nazis who’d been in power. He directed the Jewish Documentation Center in Linz (1947-54) and Vienna (beginning in 1961), and founded the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles in 1977.

Wiesenthal has been credited with contributing to the capture of “final solution” coordinator Adolf Eichmann in 1961. He has also been credited with investigations that led to the capture of other war criminals, including death camp commander Franz Stangl and Gestapo worker Karl Silberbauer, who was responsible for the arrest of Anne Frank. Wiesenthal continued his efforts well into his later years, though his house was firebombed in 1982, with no one being injured.

Wiesenthal’s influence extended to the literary world, as well. In 1967, he published the book The Murderers Among Us: The Wiesenthal Memoirs, followed in 1969 by the exploratory work The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.

Wiesenthal’s work is recognized for continuing to shed light on the injustices and horrors of the Holocaust, for calling on governmental intervention in the capture of war criminals and for being a driven, often times singular, investigative force. Among a legion of awards and accolades, he’s received the Dutch and Luxembourg Medals of Freedom and the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. He was also the subject of the 1989 HBO biopic Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story, which starred Ben Kingsley in the lead role. Another memoir, Justice Not Vengeance: Recollections, was published that same year.

He died in Vienna in September 20, 2005