SIMON WIESENTHAL Biography - Writers


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Simon Wiesenthal was born on December 31, 1908, in Buczacz, in what is now the               
Lvov Oblast section of the Ukraine. When Wiesenthal's father was killed in World             
War I, Mrs. Wiesenthal took her family and fled to Vienna for a brief period,               
returning to Buczacz when she remarried. The young 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. Their life together was happy until 1939 when Germany and Russia signed               
their "non-aggression" pact and agreed to partition Poland between them; the                 
Russian army soon occupied Lvov, and shortly afterward began the Red purge of               
Jewish merchants, factory owners and other professionals. In the purge of "bourgeois"       
elements that followed the Soviet occupation of Lvov Oblast at the beginning of             
World War II, Wiesenthal's stepfather was arrested by the NKVD (People's                     
Commissariat of Internal Affairs - Soviet Secret Police) and eventually died in             
prison, his stepbrother was shot, and Wiesenthal himself, forced to close his               
business, became a mechanic in a bedspring factory. Later 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. But he did not escape incarceration. Following initial               
detention in the Janwska concentration camp just outside Lvov, he and his wife               
were assigned to the forced labor camp serving the Ostbahn Works, the repair                 
shop for Lvov's Eastern Railroad.                                                           
Early in 1942, the Nazi hierarchy formally decided on the "Final Solution" to               
the "Jewish problem" ? annihilation. Throughout occupied Europe a terrifying                 
genocide machine was put into operation. 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.               
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 , and             
spirited out of the camp in the autumn of 1942. She lived in Warsaw for two                 
years and then worked in the Rhineland as a forced laborer, without her true                 
identity ever being discovered.                                                             
With the help of the deputy director, Wiesenthal himself 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 Janwska where he would almost               
certainly have been killed had the German eastern front not collapsed under the             
advancing Red Army. Knowing they would be sent into combat if they had no                   
prisoners to justify their rear-echelon assignment, the SS guards at Janwska                 
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, picking up             
the entire population of the village of Chelmiec along the way to adjust the                 
prisoner-guard ratio.                                                                       
Very few of the prisoners survived the westward trek through Plaszow, Gross-Rosen           
and Buchenwald, which ended at Mauthausen in upper Austria. Weighing less than               
100 pounds and lying helplessly in a barracks where the stench was so strong                 
that even hardboiled SS guards would not enter, Wiesenthal was barely alive when             
Mauthausen was liberated by an American armored unit on May 5, 1945.                         
As soon as his health was sufficiently restored, Wiesenthal began gathering and             
preparing evidence on Nazi atrocities for the War Crimes Section of the United               
States Army. After the war, he also worked for the Army's Office of Strategic               
Services and Counter-Intelligence Corps and headed the Jewish Central Committee             
of the United States Zone of Austria, a relief and welfare organization. Late in             
1945, he and his wife, each of whom had believed the other to be dead, were                 
reunited, and in 1946, their daughter Pauline was born.                                     
The evidence supplied by Wiesenthal was utilized in the American zone war crime             
trials. When his association with the United States Army ended in 1947,                     
Wiesenthal and thirty volunteers opened the Jewish Historical Documentation                 
Center in Linz, Austria, for the purpose of assembling evidence for future                   
trials. But, as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union                 
intensified, both sides lost interest in prosecuting Germans, and Wiesenthal's               
volunteers, succumbing to frustration, drifted away to more ordinary pursuits.               
In 1954, the office in Linz was closed and its files were given to the Yad                   
Vashem Archives in Israel, except for one - the dossier on Adolf Eichmann, the               
inconspicuous technocrat who, as chief of the Gestapo's Jewish Department, had               
supervised the implementation of the "Final Solution."                                       
While continuing his salaried relief and welfare work, including the running of             
an occupational training school for Hungarian and other Iron Curtain refugees,               
Wiesenthal never relaxed in his pursuit of the elusive Eichmann who had                     
disappeared at the time of Germany's defeat in World War II. In 1953, Wiesenthal             
received information that Eichmann was in Argentina from people who had spoken               
to him there. He passed this information on to Israel through the Israeli                   
embassy in Vienna and in 1954 also informed Nahum Goldmann, but the FBI had                 
received information that Eichmann was in Damascus, Syria. It was not until 1959             
that Israel was informed by Germany that Eichmann was in Buenos Aires living                 
under the alias of Ricardo Klement. He was captured there by Israeli agents and             
brought to Israel for trial. Eichmann was found guilty of mass murder and                   
executed on May 31, 1961.                                                                   
Encouraged by the capture of Eichmann, Wiesenthal reopened the Jewish                       
Documentation Center, this time in Vienna, and concentrated exclusively on the               
hunting of war criminals. One of his high priority cases was Karl Silberbauer,               
the Gestapo officer who arrested Anne Frank, the fourteen year-old German-Jewish             
girl who was murdered by the Nazis after hiding in an Amsterdam attic for two               
years. Dutch neo-Nazi propagandists were fairly successful in their attempts to             
discredit the authenticity of Anne Frank's famous diary until Wiesenthal located             
Silberbauer, then a police inspector in Austria, in 1963. "Yes," Silberbauer                 
confessed, when confronted, "I arrested Anne Frank."                                         
In October 1966, sixteen SS officers, nine of them found by Wiesenthal, went on             
trial in Stuttgart, West Germany, for participation in the extermination of Jews             
in Lvov. High on Wiesenthal's most-wanted list was Franz Stangl, the commandant             
of the Treblinka and Sobibor concentration camps in Poland. After three years of             
patient undercover work by Wiesenthal, Stangl was located in Brazil and remanded             
to West Germany for imprisonment in 1967. He was sentenced to life imprisonment             
and died in prison.                                                                         
Wiesenthal's book of memoirs, The Murderers Among Us, was published in 1967.                 
During a visit to the United States to promote the book, Wiesenthal announced               
that he had found Mrs. Hermine Ryan, nee Braunsteiner, a housewife living in                 
Queens, New York. According to the dossier, Mrs. Ryan had supervised the                     
killings of several hundred children at Majdanek. She was extradited to Germany             
for trial as a war criminal in 1973 and received life imprisonment.                         
The Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna is a nondescript, sparsely furnished               
three-room office with a staff of four, including Wiesenthal. Contrary to belief,           
Wiesenthal does not usually track down the Nazi fugitives himself. His chief                 
task is gathering and analyzing information. In that work he is aided by a vast,             
informal, international network of friends, colleagues, and sympathizers,                   
including German World War II veterans, appalled by the horrors they witnessed.             
He has even received tips from former Nazis with grudges against other former               
Nazis. A special branch of his Vienna office documents the activities of right-wing         
groups, neo-Nazis and similar organizations.                                                 
Painstakingly, Wiesenthal culls every pertinent document and record he can get               
and listens to the many personal accounts told him by individual survivors. With             
an architect's structural acumen, a Talmudist's thoroughness, and a brilliant               
talent for investigative thinking, he pieces together the most obscure,                     
incomplete, and apparently irrelevant and unconnected data to build cases solid             
enough to stand up in a court of law. The dossiers are then presented to the                 
appropriate authorities. When, as often happens, they fail to take action,                   
whether from indifference, pro-Nazi sentiment, or some other consideration,                 
Wiesenthal goes to the press and other media, for experience has taught him that             
publicity and an outraged public opinion are powerful weapons.                               
The work yet to be done is enormous. Germany's war criminal files contain more               
than 90,000 names, most of them of people who have never been tried. Thousands               
of former Nazis, not named in any files, are also known to be at large, often in             
positions of prominence, throughout Germany. Aside from the cases themselves,               
there is the tremendous task of persuading authorities and the public that the               
Nazi Holocaust was massive and pervasive. In the final paragraph of his memoirs,             
he quotes what an SS corporal told him in 1944: "You would tell the truth [about             
the death camps] to the people in America. That's right. And you know what would             
happen, Wiesenthal? They wouldn't believe you. They'd say you were mad. Might               
even put you into an asylum. How can anyone believe this terrible business -                 
unless he has lived through it?"                                                             
Among Mr. Wiesenthal's many honors include decorations from the Austrian and                 
French resistance movements, the Dutch Freedom Medal, the Luxembourg Freedom                 
Medal, the United Nations League for the Help of Refugees Award, the U.S.                   
Congressional Gold Medal presented to him by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, and             
the French Legion of Honor which he received in 1986. Wiesenthal was a                       
consultant for the motion picture thriller, The Odessa File (Paramount, 1974).               
The Boys From Brazil (Twentieth Century Fox, 1978), a major motion picture based             
on Ira Levin's book of the same name, starring Sir Laurence Olivier as Herr                 
Lieberman, a character styled after Wiesenthal.                                             
In 1981, the Wiesenthal Center produced the Academy Award-winning documentary,               
Genocide, narrated by Elizabeth Taylor and the late Orson Welles, and introduced             
by Simon Wiesenthal.                                                                         
Simon and Cyla Wiesenthal live in a modest apartment in Vienna and have little               
social life. Wiesenthal spends his evenings answering letters, studying books               
and files, and working on his stamp collection.                                             
As is to be expected, Simon Wiesenthal has received numerous anonymous threats               
and insulting letters. In June 1982, a bomb exploded at the front door of his               
house causing a great deal of damage. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Since then,             
his house and office have been guarded by an armed policeman. One German and                 
several Austrian neo-Nazis were arrested for the bombing. The German, who was               
found to be the main perpetrator, was sentenced to five years in prison.                     
Wiesenthal is often asked to explain his motives for becoming a Nazi hunter.                 
According to Clyde Farnsworth in the New York Times Magazine (February 2, 1964),             
Wiesenthal once spent the Sabbath at the home of a former Mauthausen inmate, now             
a well-to-do jewelry manufacturer. After dinner his host said, "Simon, if you               
had gone back to building houses, you'd be a millionaire. Why didn't you?" "You're           
a religious man," replied Wiesenthal. "You believe in God and life after death.             
I also believe. When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews               
who died in the camps and they ask us, 'What have you done?', there will be many             
answers. You will say, 'I became a jeweler', Another will say, I have smuggled               
coffee and American cigarettes', Another will say, 'I built houses', But I will             
say, 'I didn't forget you.'"                                                                 
Wiesenthal died on September 20, 2005, at his home in Vienna. He was 96.                     
Wiesenthal's biographers credited him with ferreting out 1,100 of Adolf Hitler's             
major and minor killers and other Nazi war criminals since World War II. ?When               
history looks back,? Wiesenthal said, ?I want people to know the Nazis weren't               
able to kill millions of people and get away with it.?