Simon Wiesenthal, 96, the controversial Nazi hunter who pursued hundreds of war criminals after World War II and was central to preserving the memory of the Holocaust for more than half a century, died early today at his home in Vienna, Austria. He had a kidney ailment.
Called the "deputy for the dead" and "avenging archangel" of the Holocaust, Wiesenthal after the war created a repository of concentration camp testimonials and dossiers on Nazis at his Jewish Documentation Center. The information was used to help lawyers prosecute those responsible for some of the 20th century's most abominable crimes.
Simon Wiesenthal Dies At 96
Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal, who helped track down Nazi war criminals following World War II, then spent the later decades of his life fighting anti-Semitism and prejudice against all people, died in Vienna, Austria on Sept. 20, 2005. He was 96.
Wiesenthal spoke of the horrors first-hand, having spent the war hovering near death in a series of labor and extermination camps. Nearly 90 members of his family perished.
After the Nuremberg Trials of the late 1940s, Wiesenthal remained a persistent and lonely voice calling for war crimes trials of former Nazis. This was later considered by many a remarkable achievement, coming during the Cold War when the major world powers were recruiting former Nazis to help govern countries along the Iron Curtain. There was little political will to relive World War II, and few cared to challenge that perspective.
Martin Mendelsohn, a Washington lawyer who in the late 1970s helped establish the Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations within the U.S. Justice Department, said in an interview that Wiesenthal "kept the memory of the Holocaust alive when everyone wanted it to go away. When Jewish groups wanted it to go away, he wanted to keep it alive. That is his signal accomplishment."
Following the principle "justice, not vengeance," Wiesenthal said trials of Nazis would provide moral restitution for the Jews and have the best chance of preventing the anti-Semitism that defined the first half of his life.
"I'm doing this because I have to do it," he once said. "I am not motivated by a sense of revenge. Perhaps I was for a short time in the very beginning. . . . Even before I had had time to really think things through, I realized we must not forget. If all of us forgot, the same thing might happen again, in 20 or 50 or 100 years."
His targets included Adolf Eichmann, one of the foremost planners of Jewish extermination; Fritz Stangl, commandant of two death camps; Gestapo officer Karl Silberbauer, who arrested Anne Frank in her Amsterdam hideout; and Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, who helped process the murder of women and children at a camp in Poland and later was found living as a housewife in Queens, N.Y.
Through informants, which included veterans of rival Nazi-era intelligence services, Wiesenthal helped expose organizations like Odessa, which slipped former Nazis to South America. In various ways, including procuring prosecution witnesses, Wiesenthal said he helped bring 1,100 ex-Nazis to trial.
His most celebrated early case concerned Eichmann, who had vanished after the war. He said Eichmann was the essence of the "desk murderer," the bureaucrats whose policies condemned to torture or death tens of thousands of people at a time.
In 1947, Eichmann's wife sought to have the Nazi official declared dead. Wiesenthal was able to prove the alleged witness to the death was Eichmann's brother-in-law, preventing the death certificate from being approved.
Wiesenthal, who knew many SS men who remarried their own "widows," said his greatest contribution was "destroying the legend" that Eichmann had died.