Philanthropist, Nazi Hunter and Holocaust Survivor, Simon Wiesenthal, Passes Away, 2005
On This Day in Jewish History: September 20th, 2005
Born December 31, 1908 in Buczacz, Balicia, Austria-Hungary (today Buchach, Ukraine), Simon Wiesenthal originally intended to have a career in engineering after studying architectural engineering at the Technical University of Prague. However, the occupation of the Nazi’s soon changed that hope.
After graduation, Wiesenthal settled in Lwow, Poland (today Lviv, Ukraine) with his wife in the mid-1930s. Although both Wiesenthal and his wife supported the Zionist movement in the 1930s, they stayed in Lwow despite the threat of a German invasion of Poland, later explaining that, like many others at the time, did not take Hitler seriously. When in 1941 Germans occupied the city, Wiesenthal was placed in a forced labor camp at the German Eastern Railway plants. He was subsequently imprisoned in camps in Janowska, Plaszow, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald and finally Mauthausen where he was liberated in 1945.
Wiesenthal’s wife, unlike himself, looked more Aryan and was therefore able to pass as such for the majority of the war. However, the rest of their family did not have this luck, and in total 89 members of their families were killed by the Nazis. Settling in Linz, Austria, Wiesenthal began to work in the displaced persons camps for two Jewish welfare organizations; The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Organization for Rehabilitation and Training. It was in this immediate post-war period where Wiesenthal began to devote his life to the search for and legal prosection of Nazi war criminals.
In 1948, Wiesenthal participated in an abortive attempt made by 3 Israeli agents to apprehend Adolf Eichmann in Austria. This began one of the worlds biggest manhunts for a Nazi war criminal. In March 1953, Wiesenthal informed the Israeli consul general in Vienna that Eichmann was hiding in Argentina, where Israeli agents abducted him in 1960. Eichmann’s final identification was based in part on information supplied by Wiesenthal, though he did not go to Argentina. Eichmann was subsequently put on trial and convicted in Israel, where he was then executed in 1962 for his role as mastermind of the "Final Solution" to wipe out the Jews. Prior to his execution, Wiesenthal expressed his objects in a private letter, arguing that Eichmann should be kept alive and used as a witness in trials of other Nazi criminals.
Working primarily by himself, Wiesenthal relied on historical documents, old address books and telephone directories as his sources rather than sending agents and detectives to do field work. One year after his identification of Eichmann, Wiesenthal identified Karl Silberbauer, an Austrian policeman serving in Amsterdam in 1944 who participated in the arrest of the Frank family. Wiesenthal was also a key figure in the prosecution of Hermine Brausteiner-Ryan, a guard at Majdanek extermination camp, and Franz Stangl, a commandant of Treblinka and Sobibor extermination camps.
A strong believer in the liberal system of justice, Wiesenthal insisted that each individual case be proved in court. This echoed his advocacy for a broad humanistic approach to the memory of the Holocaust, which he described as a "crime against humanity". According to Wiesenthal, the extermination of Jews can be properly understood only in the context of the persecution of other groups. Thus, it will be up to the future generations to remember the “ravages of genocide,” as the moral goal of Holocaust memory is “taking individual responsibility for upholding human rights.”
In 1968, Wiesenthal produced the book “The Sunflower,” a comprehensive symposium on guilt and forgiveness based on his experience in a concentration camp when a mortally wounded SS soldier asked Wiesenthal for forgiveness so he could die in peace. Wiesenthal, the recipient of the US Congressional Gold Medal (1980), French Legion of Honour (1986) and Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (2004) passed away on September 20, 2005. His work stands as a reminder and a warning for future generations. May his memory always be a blessing.