Simon Wiesenthal, 1908-2005

Victim Became Nazis' Prime Pursuer

Simon Wiesenthal attends a trial of suspected Nazi war criminals in Vienna, Austria, in 1958. He said he helped bring 1,100 ex-Nazis to trial.
Simon Wiesenthal attends a trial of suspected Nazi war criminals in Vienna, Austria, in 1958. He said he helped bring 1,100 ex-Nazis to trial. (Simon Wiesenthal Center Via Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

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 yesterday 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 testimony 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.

Wiesenthal spoke of the horrors firsthand, having spent the war hovering near death in 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.

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."

Wiesenthal made many enemies, even among high-profile Jews who criticized his methods and said he was out to glorify himself. He justified his active use of the press and eagerness for public recognition by pointing to the sizable battle he waged independent of any government or large organization.

Following the principle "justice, not vengeance," Wiesenthal said trials of Nazis would provide moral restitution for the Jews and offer 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 select women and children at a camp in Poland who were sent to the gas chamber and later was found living as a housewife in Queens, N.Y.

Dogged Pursuit

Through informants, who included veterans of rival Nazi-era intelligence services, Wiesenthal helped expose such organizations as Odessa, which slipped former Nazis into 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," a bureaucrat 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 that the alleged witness to the death was Eichmann's brother-in-law, preventing the death certificate from being approved.

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