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Simon Wiesenthal, Who Helped Hunt Nazis After War, Dies at 96
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
Simon Wiesenthal, the death camp survivor who dedicated the rest of his life to tracking down fugitive Nazi war criminals, died today at his home in Vienna. He was 96. His death was announced by Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
After hairbreadth escapes from death, two suicide attempts and his liberation by American forces in Austria in 1945, Mr. Wiesenthal abandoned his profession as an architectural engineer and took on a new calling: memorializing the six million of his fellow Jews and perhaps five million other noncombatants who were systematically murdered by the Nazis, and bringing their killers to justice.
His results were checkered: claims that he flushed out nearly 1,100 war criminals were sometimes wrong or disputed. But his role as a stubborn sleuth on the trail of history's archfiends helped keep the spotlight on a hideous past that he said too much of the world was disposed to forget.
"To young people here, I am the last," he told an interviewer in Vienna in 1993. "I'm the one who can still speak. After me, it's history."
From the cramped three-room office of his Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna, Mr. Wiesenthal spent years collecting and disbursing tips on war criminals through a network of informers, government agents, journalists and even former Nazis. He recounted these efforts in a memoir published in 1967, "The Murderers Among Us," and a second volume, "Justice, Not Vengeance," in 1989.
With a grave and tenacious manner, undercurrents of humor and a flair for gaining attention, he was lionized in 1989 in an HBO movie "Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story," based on his memoirs and starring Ben Kingsley. A character modeled on him was played by Sir Laurence Olivier in the 1978 film "The Boys from Brazil" (though Mr. Wiesenthal was mortified by his depiction as a bumbler). And he served as a consultant for yet another thriller, "The Odessa File."
Dozens of nations and institutions honored him: the list of his awards, typed single-space, takes up nearly an entire dense page. But one prize that eluded him, to his great disappointment, was the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mr. Wiesenthal, a bulky figure with a clipped mustache who sometimes laughed that people mistakenly saw him as harmless, pressed his searches despite vilification and threats of death and kidnapping made against him, his wife, Cyla, and their daughter, Pauline. In 1982 his house in Vienna was damaged by a firebomb, but he escaped unharmed. (German and Austrian neo-Nazis were charged, and one went to jail.) Yet he rejected entreaties to move, insisting that there was a symbolic purpose in doing his work from a longtime redoubt of Nazism and anti-Semitism where, he once said, his efforts were "unhappily tolerated."
Calling himself "the bad conscience of the Nazis," he vowed to continue his efforts "until the day I die." His goal, he said, was not vengeance but ensuring that Nazi crimes "are brought to light so the new generation knows about them, so it should not happen again."
It was a matter of pride and satisfaction, he said in 1995, as he approached his 87th birthday, that old Nazis who get into quarrels threaten one another with a vow to go to Simon Wiesenthal.
He wrote grippingly of the German killing industry, cataloging a list of property sent to Berlin from the Treblinka death camp between October 1942 and August 1943: "Twenty-five freight cars of women's hair, 248 freight cars of clothing, 100 freight cars of shoes," along with 400,000 gold watches, 145,000 kilograms of gold wedding rings and 4,000 karats of diamonds "over 2 karats."
Of the 700,000 people known to have been taken to Treblinka, he wrote in the 1960's, "about 40 are now alive." He suggested that train stations in Europe should get plaques reading: "Between 1942 and 1945 trains passed through here every day with the sole purpose of taking human beings to their annihilation."
In recent years he also spoke out in favor of war crimes trials for genocide in the former Yugoslavia, and lent his name to a Holocaust study center and Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
"Survivors should be like seismographs," Mr. Wiesenthal wrote. "They should sense danger before others do, identify its outlines and reveal them. They are not entitled to be wrong a second time or regard as harmless something that might lead to catastrophe."
Sometimes he taught his lessons with an acerbic wit. Failing to sway a Jewish lawyer who persisted in defending the right of neo-Nazis to march even through a Jewish neighborhood, Mr. Wiesenthal offered a final rebuke: "A Jew may be stupid, but it's not obligatory."
Once, in West Germany, he related, he defused a harangue by a speaker who accused him of dining on Nazis for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "You are mistaken," he replied. "I don't eat pork."
He became embroiled in Austrian politics, feuding bitterly with the Socialist chancellor, Bruno Kreisky. He was also assailed for siding with Kurt Waldheim, the former United Nations secretary general and Austrian president who concealed his wartime service with a German intelligence unit implicated in atrocities in the Balkans.
Critics challenged Mr. Wiesenthal's claims to have played a role in the seizure of Adolf Eichmann, who directed the transport of European Jews to Hitler's death camps and was kidnapped by the Israelis from Argentina in 1960, then tried, convicted and hanged. He also promulgated many false sightings in the bungled hunt for Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz death camp doctor who fled to South America and drowned in Brazil in 1979.
Serge Klarsfeld, a Paris lawyer who with his German-born wife, Beate, was instrumental in tracking down the Nazi Gestapo leader Klaus Barbie in Bolivia, called Mr. Wiesenthal an egomaniac and faulted him for not supporting their anti-Nazi demonstrations in South America and Europe. But Mr. Klarsfeld credited him with blazing the trail by his early and often lonely quest for justice after the war.
Mr. Wiesenthal was credited with a crucial role in many other cases. His investigations in São Paulo led to the arrests of Franz Stangl, former commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps in Poland, who was extradited to West Germany in 1967 and died three years later while serving a life sentence, and Gustav Franz Wagner, a former deputy commandant at Sobibor, who died during extradition proceedings in 1980. He was instrumental in the arrest and extradition from Argentina of Josef Schwammberger, an SS officer convicted in the killings of prisoners and slave laborers at camps in Poland and sentenced to life in prison in Germany in 1992.
Mr. Wiesenthal tracked down Karl Silberbauer, at the time a Vienna police officer, who had been the Gestapo aide responsible for arresting Anne Frank and her family in their secret annex in Amsterdam, a feat of sleuthing that buttressed the credibility of Anne's diary in the face of neo-Nazi claims that it was fabricated.
He unmasked Hermine Braunsteiner-Ryan, a whip-wielding guard at the Maidanek death camp who was living in Queens and who was sentenced to life in West Germany. And he put a reporter for The New York Times on the trail of Valerian D. Trifa, a leader of the fascist Iron Guard in Bucharest who fomented a massacre of the Jews, later found refuge in Michigan as archbishop of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate in the United States and was deported in 1984, to Portugal, where he died three years later.
Mr. Wiesenthal penetrated veils of secrecy shrouding the Nazi euthanasia program and doctors who conspired in killing "useless eaters." He also traced the escape routes of SS criminals and other Nazis, documenting the underground network known from its German initials as Odessa. And as much as tracking down fugitive Nazis himself, he took it as his mission to goad governments around the world not to drop their pursuit and prosecution of war criminals.
But his efforts in the hunt for Eichmann and Mengele, two of Nazi Germany's most heinous criminals, were disputed.
He often claimed to have placed Eichmann in Buenos Aires as early as 1953, and later to have turned over crucial photos of Eichmann to Israeli agents. But Isser Harel, the Israeli Mossad chief who masterminded Eichmann's abduction, vehemently contradicted Mr. Wiesenthal, denying that any such meeting with agents took place and crediting the success to information supplied by a West German prosecutor, Fritz Bauer. Subsequent accounts lent credence to Mr. Harel's version.
In the case of Mengele, wanted for grisly pseudomedical experiments on twins and other helpless subjects at Auschwitz, Mr. Wiesenthal had a shrewd insight in 1964. He urged West German authorities to monitor a close associate of the Mengele family, Hans Sedlmeier, in Günzburg, a Bavarian town where the Mengele family had its farm-machinery business.
Mr. Sedlmeier had indeed been in regular contact with the fugitive in Paraguay and Brazil. But he also had friends on the local police force and, tipped off to a search, concealed letters and other evidence that would have led to Mengele. The crucial lead evaporated, not to be re-examined for more than 20 years, by which time Mengele was already dead.
Over the years, Mr. Wiesenthal publicized a host of detailed and spurious "sightings" of Mengele in Paraguay, Egypt, Spain and a tiny Greek island, Kythnos. Benjamin Varon, former Israeli ambassador to Paraguay, publicly suggested that Mr. Wiesenthal might have been embellishing to coax money from contributors. His comments, in a Jewish magazine, Midstream, in 1983, provoked a rebuke from Mr. Wiesenthal's supporters, who accused him of "profaning" Mr. Wiesenthal's "sacred mission."
Although he continued to voice suspicions of fakery for years after a body was authoritatively identified as Mengele's in 1985, Mr. Wiesenthal eventually acknowledged the truth of the scientific findings that Mengele had indeed drowned and was dead.
But clearly Simon Wiesenthal haunted his quarry. One of Mengele's fanatical Nazi protectors in Brazil, Wolfgang Gerhard, told of dreams in which he hitched the Nazi-hunter to an automobile and dragged him to his death.
One of the most rancorous episodes in Mr. Wiesenthal's postwar career pitted him against Chancellor Kreisky, who was also Jewish and whom Mr. Wiesenthal accused in the 1970's of pursuing a politically expedient alliance with former Nazis to strengthen his Socialist Party. Mr. Kreisky fired back with intimations that Mr. Wiesenthal had collaborated with the Gestapo, a charge that Mr. Wiesenthal labeled ludicrous, and that was never backed up.
That fracas was followed a decade later by Mr. Wiesenthal's dispute with the World Jewish Congress over the Waldheim affair.
In early 1986, when the former secretary general ran as the conservative party candidate for president, the Jewish Congress investigated his wartime record, uncovering evidence that he had not sat out most of the war, as he had always claimed. Instead he had apparently served as a lieutenant with a German Army intelligence and propaganda unit that had carried out deportations and atrocities in the Balkans, and had initialed reports of "severe" measures to be taken against captives.
From the outset Mr. Wiesenthal took issue with the accusations, but not for reasons of politics, he asserted.
"The truth was simpler," he wrote in his book, "Justice, Not Vengeance." "I was not prepared to attack Kurt Waldheim as a Nazi or a war criminal because from all I knew about him and from all that emerged from the documents, he had been neither a Nazi nor a war criminal."
In 1993 Eli M. Rosenbaum, former general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and later director of the Justice Department Office of Special Investigations, a Nazi-hunting task force, linked Mr. Wiesenthal to a Waldheim cover-up.
In a book, "Betrayal" (St. Martin's), Mr. Rosenbaum and a co-author, William Hoffer, wrote that Mr. Wiesenthal, acting on an Israeli request, had discovered Mr. Waldheim's secret in French-held war archives as far back as 1979 but for political or other reasons misled the Israelis. When evidence of Mr. Waldheim's true record began to emerge, according to the book, Mr. Wiesenthal allied himself with Mr. Waldheim to save his own reputation.
For his part, Mr. Wiesenthal contended that he had correctly informed the Israelis that Mr. Waldheim had not been a member of the Nazi Party or the SS and that the World Jewish Congress was unfairly trying for its own purposes to brand Mr. Waldheim a war criminal. While he faulted Mr. Waldheim's credibility, Mr. Wiesenthal defended his own conduct. In a world where people believe in Jewish conspiracies, he told an interviewer, "accusations from Jewish sources must be able to stand up to all tests of credibility."
Although a reviewer for The New York Times took issue with "Betrayal" for appearing to equate Mr. Wiesenthal and Mr. Waldheim in villainy, its documentation was widely praised, winning a jacket endorsement from Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and writer.
But Mr. Wiesenthal was never one for backing down. Castigated once as a meddler by an Austrian justice minister, he freely acknowledged that no one had appointed him "the lawyer for six million dead people."
"No such appointment exists," he went on. "But I've worked for over 20 years for the memory of these people, and I believe I've earned the right to speak for them."
Simon Wiesenthal was born on Dec. 31, 1908, in Buczacz, Galicia, which was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later became part of Ukraine. His father, Hans, was a commodities wholesaler and Austrian Army officer who died in combat in 1915. In Buczacz, Jews endured murderous pogroms by the Cossacks, and in one such assault young Simon was slashed by a marauder's saber. In high school the boy fell in love with a classmate, Cyla Müller, a distant relation of Sigmund Freud; though teenagers, they were considered betrothed.
Mr. Wiesenthal wanted to study at the Polytechnic Institute in Lvov but was denied admission because of a quota on Jewish students. Instead he attended the Technical University of Prague, where in 1932 he received a degree in architectural engineering.
In 1936 he and Cyla married, and he took a job in an architectural office in Lvov. Three years later, when Germany and Russia partitioned Poland, the Red Army overran Lvov, purging Jews. Mr. Wiesenthal's stepfather was arrested and died in prison and his stepbrother was shot. Mr. Wiesenthal was reduced to working as a mechanic in a bedspring factory. Only by bribing a Soviet secret police commissar, he wrote, was he able to save himself, his wife and mother from deportation to Siberia.
In July 1941, Mr. Wiesenthal recounted, after the invading Germans replaced the Russians, he and other Jews were lined up in a courtyard to be shot. After about half the group had been executed, the soldiers withdrew for a church service and he was spared. He was then held in the Janowska concentration camp outside Lvov before he and his wife were sent to a forced labor camp serving the repair shop for Lvov's Eastern Railroad.
In 1942, as the Germans began to implement their "final solution" by exterminating Jews, Mr. Wiesenthal's mother was transported to the Belzec death camp, where she was killed. In all, Mr. Wiesenthal and his wife lost 89 family members to the German liquidation.
With false papers provided by the Polish underground in return for railroad charts that partisans needed for sabotage, Cyla Wiesenthal was spirited out of the labor camp in 1942 as a Pole. She hid in Warsaw, narrowly escaping incineration in a German flamethrower assault, and was sent to the Rhineland as a forced laborer making machine guns for the Germans.
With the connivance of an official, Mr. Wiesenthal himself escaped the labor camp in October 1943. But the following June he was recaptured and sent back to the Janowska camp where, he related, he slit his wrists with a contraband razor blade. Revived by the Gestapo for interrogation, he tried to hang himself but was too weak.
With the Red Army advancing on the retreating Germans, the SS guards moved their last remaining 34 prisoners westward, picking up new prisoners on the march. Few survived the trek, with stops at the camps in Plasgow, Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald and ending at Mauthausen in Austria. There Mr. Wiesenthal, weighing 97 pounds, was liberated by Americans on May 5, 1945.
Almost as soon as he could stand, he began collecting evidence on the atrocities for the War Crimes Section of the United States Army. He also served the Office of Strategic Services and the Army's Counterintelligence Corps, and headed the Jewish Central Committee of the United States occupation zone in partitioned Austria. By the end of 1945 he and his wife had found each other, and the following year their daughter, Pauline, was born. The Wiesenthals were married for 67 years before Mrs. Wiesenthal died on Nov. 10, 2003.
Also in 1946, after supplying evidence for war crimes trials in the American zone, Mr. Wiesenthal and 30 volunteers founded the Jewish Historical Documentation center in Linz, Austria, to collect evidence for future trials. But the developing cold war dulled interest in Nazi-hunting - both the Americans and the Russians were secretly recruiting Nazi scientists and spymasters. In 1954 the Linz office was closed and its files conveyed to the Holocaust archives of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
But after the successful seizure of Adolf Eichmann, for which Mr. Wiesenthal was quick to claim credit , he reopened his Jewish documentation center, this time in Vienna, and focused on an array of notorious Nazi fugitives.
In November 1977, Mr. Wiesenthal lent his name to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based institute for Holocaust remembrance. With an attached Museum of Tolerance and offices around the world, the center investigates and reports on anti-Semitism and bigotry worldwide. In 1981 the center produced a documentary, "Genocide," narrated by Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles. The next year the film won the Academy Award for best documentary.
According to a biography distributed by the center, Mr. Wiesenthal and his wife lived in a modest house in Vienna where he spent his time "answering letters, studying books and files and working on his stamp collection."
His books include "Concentration Camp Mauthausen" (1946), "I Hunted Eichmann" (1961), "The Sunflower" (1970) and "Sails of Hope: The Secret Mission of Christopher Columbus" (1973), in which he concluded that the voyage in 1492 was in part an effort to find a homeland for Europe's persecuted Jews.
He was often asked why he had become a searcher of Nazi criminals instead of resuming a profitable career in architecture. He gave one questioner this response: "You're a religious man. 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 smuggled coffee and American cigarettes.' Still another will say, 'I built houses,' but I will say, 'I didn't forget you.' "
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