Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal dead at 96

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Simon Wiesenthal

Holocaust survivor and famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, founder of the center that bears his name, has passed away this morning at his home in Vienna, Austria. He was 96.

Wiesenthal was born December 31, 1908 in Buchach, then part of Austria-Hungary, and studied in Prague. He settled in Poland and was forced to work in a factory after the Soviet Union had invaded Poland, following the Hitler-Stalin pact. When the Germans then turned on the Soviet Union in 1941, Wiesenthal was caught and interned in several concentration camps. He was liberated when American forces reached the Mauthausen concentration camp in May 1945.

Wiesenthal devoted almost his entire Post-WWII life tracking down and pursuing Nazi war criminals. In 1947 he and thirty colleages founded the Jewish Documentation Center in Linz, Austria which was devoted to collecting information on the whearabouts of war criminals and the documentation of their crimes. But the brewing cold war caused the U.S. and Soviet Union to quickly lose interest in the prosecution of Nazis. Wiesenthal closed the Linz centre in 1954 but gained new hope with the capture of Adolf Eichmann, whom he helped to track down. Possibly his biggest success was the capture and trial of Franz Stangl, commandant at the Treblinka extermination camp. In total he and the Simon Wiesenthal center he set up in the U.S. in 1977 is thought to have brought some 1100 war criminals to justice. But he failed to capture Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller and Auschwitz "doctor" Josef Mengele.

Wiesenthal's life was not without controversy. Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky, himself a Jewish person, accused Wiesethal of being part of "certain mafia" seeking to besmirch Austria and claimed Wiesenthal collaborated with the Nazis to survive. On the other hand Wiesenthal refused to condemn Kurt Waldheim, former U.N. Secretary-General and Austrian president, for being a officer of the German army during WWII, something which alienated him from American Jewish groups.


Israeli president Moshe Katsav called Wiesenthal the "biggest fighter" of his generation. "He represented the morality of humanity; he represented the free world, the democratic world. He devoted his life to fighting racism, anti-Semitism, Nazism and he really contributed to making a better world for the next generation", Katsav said during a visit to Latvia.

Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said: "Humanity is poorer because a just man, Simon Wiesenthal, is gone".

German president Horst Köhler said that Wiesenthal sought "justice, not revenge or hatred. That was an expression of a personality embossed with deep humanitarianism. He remains a role model for us to fight injustice persistently and forceful".