Simon Wiesenthal

Simon Wiesenthal, KBE, (Buczacz, December 31, 1908Vienna, September 20, 2005) was an Austrian-Jewish architectural engineer who hunted down Nazi war criminals, after surviving the Holocaust. Following four and a half years in the concentration camps of Janowska, Plaszow, and Mauthausen during World War II, Wiesenthal dedicated most of his life to tracking down and gathering information on fugitive Nazis so that they could be brought to justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, located in Los Angeles in the United States, is named in honor of him. Wiesenthal also wrote The Sunflower, which describes a life-changing event he experienced when he was in the camp.

Early life and World War II

Wiesenthal was born 12:30 am on 31 December 1908 in Buczacz, Ukrainian Galicia (then part of Austria-Hungary, now part of the Ternopil Oblast section of Ukraine) to a Jewish merchant family. He enjoyed a relatively pleasant early childhood, during which his father, Asher Wiesenthal, a 1905 refugee from the pogroms of czarist Russia (1769-1917), became an established citizen in Buczacz trading in sugar and other wholesale commodities.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, however, his father, as a reserve in the Austro-Hungarian Army, was called to active duty and died in combat on the Eastern Front in 1915. With Russian control of Galicia during this period, Wiesenthal and his remaining family (mother and brother) fled taking a refuge in Vienna, Austria.

Wiesenthal and his brother went to school in Vienna until the Russian retreat from Galicia in 1917. After moving back to Buczacz, that area of Galicia was constantly changing hands through numerous ‘liberations’ by surrounding nations being - at various times - under Austrian, Cossack, Ukrainian, Soviet and - eventually from 1923 - Polish rule. At the Humanistic Gymnasium, where Simon went to school during these years, he met his future wife Cyla Muller (whom he would marry in 1936). In 1925, Simon’s mother remarried and moved to the Carpathian Mountains with Simon’s brother. Simon opted to continue his studies in Buczacz, but visited them often.

After graduating high school in 1927, he was denied admission to the Polish then Lviv Polytechnic, because of quota restrictions on Jewish students. [1] So, he attended the Technical University in Prague, which he graduated in 1932 receiving a degree in architectural engineering.

In 1934 and 1935, Wiesenthal apprenticed as a building engineer in Stalinist Soviet Russia, spending a few weeks in Kharkov and Kiev, but most of these two years in the Black Sea port of Odessa.

Returning to Galicia at the end of his Russian apprenticeship, Wiesenthal was allowed to enter the Polish then Lviv Polytechnic for the advanced degree that would allow him to practice architecture in Poland. Wiesenthal was again treated as a second class citizen. Following his marriage, he opened his own architectural office in Lwów, despite not having a Polish diploma in hand, but a Czech one from Prague. He specialised in elegant villas, which wealthy Polish Jews were building despite the threats of Nazism to the west. His career spanned all of three years until he finished his final job a week before the German invasion, which began 1 September, 1939.

Wiesenthal was living in Lviv, (called Lwów until then, as a part of Poland, later Lemberg under German occupation, and now Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine) when World War II began. As a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Lviv was occupied by the Soviet Union on 17 September 1939. Wiesenthal's stepfather and stepbrother were killed by agents of the NKVD, the Soviet state security and secret police, as a part of the anti-Polish purge designed to eliminate all Polish enemies of the people that followed the Soviet occupation of Lviv. Wiesenthal was forced to close his firm and work in a factory. He bribed a NKVD commissar to prevent a deportation of him, wife, and mother to a Gulag labor camp in Siberia. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, Wiesenthal and his family were captured.

Wiesenthal survived an early wave of executions during the Holocaust thanks to the intervention of a man named Bodnar, a Ukrainian auxiliary policeman who, on 6 July 1941, saved him from execution by the Nazis then occupying Lviv, as recalled in Wiesenthal's memoir, The Murderers Among Us, written with Joseph Wechsberg. Wiesenthal and his wife were first imprisoned in the Janowska Street camp in the suburbs of the city, where they were forced to work on the local railroad. Simon and Cyla worked at the Lviv Railroad Repair Yard where Simon painted Swastica and Eagle Shields. The head SS solider was a man named Heinrich Gunthert. Gunthert asked Wiesenthal, on one occasion, where he was educated. Wiesenthal remembering that an educated Jew was a dead Jew lied and said he went to a trade school. Several men stated that he lied and Gunthert confronted him. He asked Wiesenthal why he lied and Wiesenthal confessed. Gunthert respected Wiesenthal for his education and gave him the job of Architectural Design and comfortable office to work in. Another Head SS man named Kohlrautz gave him two pistols to hide in his office and kept them a secret.

In the ghetto, Wiesenthal’s mother was crammed among other Jewish women on to a freight train to the extermination camp of Belzec, where she perished in August 1942. Around the same time, Cyla Wiesenthal found out her mother had been shot back in Buczacz on her front porch by a Ukrainian policeman as she was being evicted from her home. Cyla and Simon Wiesenthal lost 89 relatives during the Holocaust.

Members of the Home Army, the underground Polish army, helped Cyla Wiesenthal escape from the camp and provided her with false documents in exchange for diagrams of railroad junctions drawn by her husband. Cyla Wiesenthal was able to hide her Jewish identity from the Nazis because of her blonde hair and survived the war as a forced-laborer in the Rhineland. Until the end of the war, Simon believed she had perished in the Warsaw Uprising. Following their surprising reunion, they soon had their first and only child, Pauline, in 1946 (who now lives in Israel).

April 20, 1943 marked Hitler's birthday. The Janowska guards decided to shoot 44 Jews in celebration for Hitler's birthday. Wiesenthal and three other inmates were given the task to paint posters saying "Wir lieben unseren Führer!" Two SS Guards caught them and took them to Janowska. Wiesenthal remembers looking at Gunthert and Gunthert shrugging his shoulders at him. At Janowska the three men lined up with 40 other prisoners. The prisoners were stripped and lead through the Hose. The Hose was a 6'-7' wide passage where, once you passed through it, you didn't come out again. The hose led to some Sandpits where numerous bodies lay dead. The prisoners were lined up hands at the back of their necks. 5 SS men and the SS commander came walking out with Sub-machine guns. Wiesenthal heard the shots and counted one-two-three-four...-five. 1 prisoner fell. Wiesenthal stopped counting and men kept falling. As the were only 3 men left the loudspeaker rang "Wiesenthal is needed at the front." At the Front of the camp stood Kohlrauts. He was saved, again.

However, Simon Wiesenthal did not escape imprisonment so quickly. With the help of a deputy director of the camp he managed to escape from Janowska right before the Nazis executed the camp's inmates in October of 1943, and escaped into the Polish underground (for his expertise in engineering and architecture would help the Polish Partisans with bunkers and lines of fortification against German forces).

He was recaptured in June of the following year (1944) by Gestapo officers. After two failed suicide attempts, Wiesenthal and the 34 remaining Janowska prisoners were sent on a death march from camps in Poland (including Plaszow) and Germany to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. By the time he was liberated by American forces on May 5 1945, he had been imprisoned in 12 different concentration camps, including five death camps, and had narrowly escaped execution on a number of occasions. His wife passed as Aryan, a non-Jewish person, and escaped from the concentration camps with a fake ID.


At the time of his liberation, Wiesenthal, who stood at 1.80 m (5'11"), weighed less than 45 kg (99 lb). As soon as his health improved, Wiesenthal began working for the U.S. Army gathering documentation for the Nazi war crimes trials. In 1947, he and 30 other volunteers founded the Jewish Documentation Center in Linz, Austria, in order to gather information for future trials. However, as the U.S. and the Soviet Union lost interest in further war crimes trials, the group drifted apart. Wiesenthal continued to gather information in his spare time while working full-time to help those affected by World War II. During this time, Wiesenthal claimed to be instrumental in the capture and conviction of the transport manager of the "Final Solution," Adolf Eichmann. He was invited by Yad Vashem to talk about his part in tracking Eichmann down and he was earnestly instructed not to mention on any account that his whole correspondence had gone through the Israeli embassy or that Israeli intelligence had played a part. He faithfully obeyed, but this so angered Isser Harrel, the former head of the Mossad, that when he published his own memoirs in 1971 he likewise made no mention of Wiesenthal's role. Harel's allegations have been disputed at book length, and Wiesenthal's contributions to Harel's published efforts have never been acknowledged.[2] It should be noted, in regard to this and other accusations, that Wiesenthal's ecumenical but determined attitude toward tracking human rights abuses, represented by his comments, "justice, not vengeance," and "I am not a hater," have put him at odds with a wide variety of institutions and people over the years. Among those targeting him are those with a more narrowly Zionist orientation and a vested interest in downplaying the broader human rights implications of the Holocaust in favor of a sectarian and nationalistic Israeli call-to-arms.[3] These critics tend to disavow the effectiveness of Wiesenthal's specific contributions, often with disputable claims, while disregarding his pioneering role in seeking investigations and prosecutions at a time when the political climate had turned strongly toward accommodation with former war criminals. Whatever the criticisms, no one doubted that Wiesenthal was actively looking for Eichmann and eagerly passed along any verifiable information on the fugitive he obtained to several government agencies, including the Mossad.

After Eichmann was executed in Israel in 1962, Wiesenthal reopened the Jewish Documentation Center, which now focused on other cases. Among his most high-profile successes was the capture of Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer responsible for the arrest of Anne Frank. Silberbauer's confession helped discredit claims that The Diary of Anne Frank was a forgery. During this period Wiesenthal also located nine of the 16 Nazis later put on trial in West Germany for the murder of the Jewish population of Lwów and also captured Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps, and Hermine Braunsteiner-Ryan, a former Aufseherin (literally, "female supervisor") living on Long Island who had ordered the torture and murder of hundreds of children at Majdanek.

Austrian politics and later life

In the 1970s he became involved in Austrian politics when he pointed out that several ministers in Bruno Kreisky's newly formed Socialist government had been Nazis when Austria was part of the Third Reich. Kreisky, himself Jewish, responded by attacking Wiesenthal as a Nestbeschmutzer (someone who dirties their own nest). In Austria, which took decades to acknowledge its role in Nazi crimes, Wiesenthal was ignored and often insulted. In 1975, after Wiesenthal had released a report on FPÖ party chairman Friedrich Peter's Nazi past, Chancellor Bruno Kreisky suggested Wiesenthal was part of a "certain mafia" seeking to besmirch Austria and even claimed Wiesenthal had collaborated with Nazis and Gestapo to survive, a charge that Wiesenthal labeled ridiculous.

for further information, see The Kreisky-Peter-Wiesenthal affair

Over the years Wiesenthal received many death threats. In 1982, a bomb placed by German and Austrian neo-Nazis exploded outside his house in Vienna, Austria.

During the Waldheim affair, Wiesenthal defended the Austrian president, for which he was severely criticized (see below).

Even after turning 90, Wiesenthal spent time at his small office in the Jewish Documentation Center in central Vienna. In April 2003, Wiesenthal announced his retirement, saying that he had found the mass murderers he had been looking for: "I have survived them all. If there were any left, they'd be too old and weak to stand trial today. My work is done." According to Simon Wiesenthal, the last major Austrian war criminal still alive is Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann's right-hand man, who is believed to be hiding in Syria under the protection of the Bashar Al-Asad regime. However, Wiesenthal was also believed to be working on the case of Aribert Heim, one of the most notorious and wanted Nazi concentration camp doctors, prior to his retirement. Only weeks after Wiesenthal died, Heim was discovered in Spain.

Wiesenthal spent his last years in Vienna, where his wife, Cyla, died of natural causes on 10 November 2003, at the age of 95. Wiesenthal died in his sleep at age 96 in Vienna on September 20, 2005, and was buried in the city of Herzliya in Israel on 23 September. He is survived by his daughter, Paulinka Kriesberg, and three grandchildren.

In a statement on Wiesenthal's death, Council of Europe chairman Terry Davis said, "Without Simon Wiesenthal's relentless effort to find Nazi criminals and bring them to justice, and to fight anti-Semitism and prejudice, Europe would never have succeeded in healing its wounds and reconciling itself... He was a soldier of justice, which is indispensable to our freedom, stability and peace."

In October, 2006, the Vienna city council overwhelmingly approved renaming a street in Wiesenthal's honor. The newly-named Simon-Wiesenthal-Gasse was formerly known as Ichmanngasse. The former name honored Franz Ichmann, a songwriter in the early 20th century, and card-carrying member of the Nazi party.[4]


Despite Wiesenthal's achievements in locating many former Nazis, aspects of his work and life were controversial.

According to many lkjwrin the Jerusalem Post said that former Mossad chief Isser Harel had written an unpublished manuscript which claims that Wiesenthal,"not only 'had no role whatsoever' in Eichmann's apprehension, but in fact had endangered the entire Eichmann operation and aborted the planned capture of Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele." [5]Harel said that "[a]ll the information supplied by Wiesenthal, and in anticipation of the operation, was utterly worthless, and sometimes even misleading or of negative value." [6]

Harel claimed that he wrote the manuscript out of frustration at the amount of credit Wiesenthal was claiming for the capture of Eichmann. Harel declined to publish his manuscript, saying that "Nazis and antisemites will be only too happy to read this about Nazi-fighter Wiesenthal."

In a subsequent opinion piece, Haim Mass argued that many of Harel's specific allegations against Wiesenthal could be disproved and that Wiesenthal had initiated the hunt for Eichmann by providing the first photograph of the SS Colonel. Wiesenthal himself questioned Harel's motivation for not publishing his manuscript, asking "if he is afraid that 'Nazis and antisemites will be only too happy to read about this Nazi-fighter Wiesenthal,' why does he not hesitate to indulge in discrediting me unreservedly in the media? Does he think Nazis and antisemites read only books, not newspapers?" [7]

Fellow Nazi hunter Tuviah Friedman, who has known Wiesenthal since 1946, accused him of numerous self-aggrandizing lies and of making himself rich from the Eichmann affair.[8] Another Nazi hunter, Serge Klarsfeld, characterized Wiesenthal as an egomaniac, although he also praised Wiesenthal's trailblazing and often lonely efforts to find justice for the victims of the Holocaust.[9]

U.S. DOJ Office of Special Investigations head Eli Rosenbaum wrote in his study of the Kurt Waldheim affair:[10]

"In sum, Wiesenthal's roles in the biggest Nazi cases of all — Mengele, Martin Bormann, and in all likelihood, Eichmann as well — were studies in ineptitude, exaggeration, and self-glorification."

Rosenbaum described Wiesenthal as "a congenital liar" to Wiesenthal's biographer, Hella Pick. [1]

Rosenbaum's predecessor at OSI, Neal Sher, in response to Wiesenthal's demand that the OSI investigate suspected war criminals living in the United States, wrote that:

"few of your allegations have resulted in active ongoing investigations[;] the bottom line is that ... no allegation which originated from your office has resulted in a court filing by the OSI". [2]

The controversial[3] Ukrainian-American writer Myron B. Kuropas decried Wiesenthal's statements about the Ukrainians: "The Bolshevik troops were bad, but the Ukrainian cavalrybands were worse" and "The native Ukrainian population cooperated actively with the Gestapo and the SS", because allegedly he offered little substantiation or documentation for them [4].

Simon Wiesenthal has also been criticized in relation with his handling of the Frank Walus case, in which a Polish born US citizen was accused by Wiesenthal of helping the Gestapo. Walus was exonerated by the US Justice Department, on appeal.

Wiesenthal responded to his critics in a letter to The Forward, published October 15, 1993:

"I am not familiar with the new book by Eli Rosenbaum and William Hoffer, but friends who have read it tell me that it is filled with hate and consists almost entirely of an attack on me. ...
"And now a Jew, Eli Rosenbaum, has written a book about me -- or rather against me. One wonders why this has appeared on the market just now -- seven years after the Waldheim affair. "The people from the World Jewish Congress, who were so committed to the Waldheim case, find it difficult to accept the results of the international commission of historians. This commission, which was formed at my instigation in Vienna, had come to the conclusion that Mr. Waldheim knew about the wartime crimes in the Balkans but that he was not personally involved in these. A similar judgment was pronounced by a committee that examined the documents about Mr. Waldheim on Thames Television in London. The committee included some of the most respected jurists; the former director of the Office of Special Investigations, Alan Ryan, functioned as prosecutor. This group, too, concluded that there is no 'case' against Mr. Waldheim.
"As I said, I have not yet read the book by Messrs. Rosenbaum and Hoffer, but I can be sure already that the neo-Nazis and all the Holocaust deniers will be overjoyed by its attacks against me."


Dramatic portrayals

Ben Kingsley portrayed Wiesenthal in the Home Box Office film .


A feature-length documentary of Simon Wiesenthal's life, called , was released in early 2007. It was produced by Moriah Films, the Academy Award-winning media subdivision of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The film is narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman.


  • In Ira Levin's novel The Boys from Brazil, the character of Yakov Liebermann (called Ezra Liebermann and played by legendary actor Sir Laurence Olivier in the film) is modeled on Wiesenthal.
  • Wiesenthal was portrayed by the Israeli actor Shmuel Rodensky in the film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's The Odessa File, providing information to a German journalist attempting to track down a Nazi war criminal.
  • In 1990, Martin Landau played Wiesenthal in the TV movie Max and Helen.
  • Writing under the pen name of Mischka Kukin, Wiesenthal published Humor behind the Iron Curtain in 1962. This is the earliest known compendium of jokes from the Soviet Bloc countries published in the west.

See also


1. ^ Levy, Alan Nazi Hunter: The Wiesenthal File ( Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1993), Page 21
2. ^ Levy, 137-8, refers to but does not quote from Richard A. Stein, Documents against Words: Simon Wiesenthal's Conflict with the World Jewish Congress, issued in English in Holland in 1992.
3. ^ Levy, 124-5, 339-54 and 435-7, gives instances of run-ins with Nahum Goldman of the World Jewish Congress, Austrian prime minister Bruno Kriesky, and, lastly, with Elie Wiesel. Of these, only Wiesel was antagonized specifically by Wiesenthal's insistence on recognizing non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
4. ^ "Vienna street named after Wiesenthal". Article from the website of the European Jewish Press. Accessed 11 January, 2007
5. ^ Schachter, Jonathan "Isser Harel Takes On Nazi-Hunter. Wiesenthal 'Had No Role' In Eichmann Kidnapping." The Jerusalem Post 7 May 1991
6. ^ "Obituaries - Simon Wiesenthal" The Times 21 September, 2005
7. ^ Mass, Haim, "Wiesenthal: Redressing the Balance" The Jerusalem Post 10 May 1992
8. ^ [5], [6], [7], [8], [9]
9. ^ Blumenthal, Ralph, "Simon Wiesenthal Is Dead at 96; Tirelessly Pursued Nazi Fugitives" The New York Times 21 September, 2005
10. ^ , Eli Rosenbaum: Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Kurt Waldheim Investigation and Cover-Up ISBN 0-312-08219-3
  • * Simon Wiesenthal - Tuviah Friedman Korrespondenz (Documentenbook) by Germany National Bibliothek H.S.

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