'Conscience of the Holocaust' dies in Austria
Simon Wiesenthal, the Holocaust survivor who helped track down numerous Nazi war criminals following World War II and then spent the later decades of his life fighting anti-Semitism and prejudice against all people, died on Tuesday. He was 96.
Wiesenthal died in his sleep at his home in Vienna, Austria, according to Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles.
“I think he’ll be remembered as the conscience of the Holocaust. In a way he became the permanent representative of the victims of the Holocaust, determined to bring the perpetrators of the greatest crime to justice,” Hier said.
Wiesenthal, who had been an architect before World War II, changed his life’s mission after the war, dedicating himself to trying to track down Nazi war criminals and being a voice for the six million Jews who died during the onslaught.
He lost 89 relatives in the Holocaust.
Wiesenthal spent more than 50 years hunting Nazi war criminals, speaking out against neo-Nazism and racism, and remembering the Jewish experience as a lesson for humanity. Through his work, he said, about 1 100 Nazi war criminals were brought to justice.
“When history looks back, I want people to know the Nazis weren’t able to kill millions of people and get away with it,” he once said.
Mark Regev, a spokesperson for the Israeli foreign ministry, said on Tuesday that Wiesenthal “brought justice to those who had escaped justice”.
“He acted on behalf of six million people who could no longer defend themselves,” Regev said. “The state of Israel, the Jewish people and all those who oppose racism recognised Simon Wiesenthal’s unique contribution to making our planet a better place.”
‘No freedom without justice’
Wiesenthal’s quest began after the Americans liberated the Mauthausen death camp in Austria where Wiesenthal was a prisoner in May 1945. It was his fifth death camp among the dozen Nazi camps in which he was imprisoned, and he weighed just 45kg when he was freed. He said he quickly realised “there is no freedom without justice”, and decided to dedicate “a few years” to seeking justice.
“It became decades,” he added.
Even after reaching the age of 90, Wiesenthal continued to remind and warn. While appalled at atrocities committed by Serbs against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in the 1990s, he said no one should confuse the tragedy there with the Holocaust.
“We are living in a time of the trivialisation of the word ‘Holocaust’,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press (AP) in May 1999. “What happened to the Jews cannot be compared with all the other crimes. Every Jew had a death sentence without a date.”
Wiesenthal’s life spanned a violent century.
He was born on December 31 1908 to Jewish merchants at Buczacs, a small town near the present-day Ukrainian city of Lviv in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire. He studied in Prague and Warsaw, and in 1932 received a degree in civil engineering.
He apprenticed as a building engineer in Russia before returning to Lviv to open an architectural office. Then the Russians and the Germans occupied Lviv and the terror began.
After the war ended, working first with the Americans and later from a cramped Vienna apartment packed floor to ceiling with documents, Wiesenthal tirelessly pursued fugitive Nazi war criminals.
He was perhaps best known for his role in tracking down Adolf Eichmann, the one-time SS leader who organised the extermination of the Jews. Eichmann was found in Argentina, abducted by Israeli agents in 1960, and tried and hanged for crimes committed against the Jews.
Wiesenthal often was accused of exaggerating his role in Eichmann’s capture. He did not claim sole responsibility, but said he knew by 1954 where Eichmann was.
Eichmann’s capture “was a team work of many who did not know each other”, Wiesenthal told AP in 1972. “I do not know if and to what extent reports I sent to Israel were used.”
Among others Wiesenthal tracked down was Austrian police officer Karl Silberbauer, who he believes arrested the Dutch teenager Anne Frank and sent her to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she died. Officials never reacted to the tip.
Wiesenthal decided to pursue Silberbauer in 1958 after a youth told him he did not believe in Frank’s existence and murder, but would if Wiesenthal could find the man who arrested her. His five-year search resulted in Silberbauer’s 1963 capture.
Wiesenthal did not bring to justice one prime target—Dr Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Mengele died in South America after eluding capture for decades.
Wiesenthal’s long quest for justice also stirred controversy.
In Austria, which took decades to acknowledge its own role in Nazi crimes, Wiesenthal was ignored and often insulted before finally being honoured for his work when he was in his 80s.
In 1975, then-chancellor Bruno Kreisky, himself a Jew, suggested Wiesenthal was part of a “certain mafia” seeking to besmirch Austria. Kreisky even claimed Wiesenthal collaborated with Nazis to survive.
Ironically, it was the furore over Kurt Waldheim, who became president in 1986 despite lying about his past as an officer in Hitler’s army, that gave Wiesenthal stature in Austria.
Wiesenthal’s failure to condemn Waldheim as a war criminal drew international ire and conflict with American Jewish groups.
But it made Austrians realise that the Nazi hunter did not condemn everybody who took part in the Nazi war effort.
Wiesenthal did repeatedly demand Waldheim’s resignation, seeing him as a symbol of those who suppressed Austria’s role as part of Hitler’s German war and death machine. But he turned up no proof of widespread allegations that Waldheim was an accessory to war crimes.
He pursued his crusade of remembrance into old age with the vigour of youth, with patience and determination. But as he entered his 90s, he worried that his mission would die with him.
“I think in a way the world owes him and his memory a tremendous amount of gratitude,” Hier said.
Wiesenthal had more distinguished foreign awards than any other living Austrian citizen. In 1995, the city of Vienna made him an honorary citizen. He also wrote several books, including his memoirs, The Murderers among Us, in 1967, and worked regularly at the small downtown office of his Jewish Documentation Centre even after turning 90.
“The most important thing I have done is to fight against forgetting and to keep remembrance alive,” he said in the 1999 interview with AP. “It is very important to let people know that our enemies are not forgotten.”
Wiesenthal’s wife, Cyla, whom he married in 1936, died in November 2003.—Sapa-AP
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