Simon Wiesenthal was an artist, an architect, an author, and a Holocaust survivor; following his liberation, he became known as a Nazi Hunter – a title he pushed back against. While it was true that he pursued Nazi war criminals following the war, he was also responsible for the arrest of more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals; however, he felt that the title Nazi Hunter sounded like he was in pursuit of vengeance. Simon Wiesenthal had witnessed unimaginable horrors in a series of concentration camps during the Holocaust. And he did believe that the men and women who had perpetrated the Holocaust crimes needed to be held accountable. But his post-war life’s work was not about vengeance – he saw his work as the pursuit of justice through Holocaust education and social advocacy. For many years, Simon Wiesenthal’s office in Austria was the only office that continued to pursue Nazi war criminals and fight antisemitism. In addition to his quest for justice, Simon Wiesenthal also believed in the power of education. If we were ever to break this cycle of hate and intolerance, we need to educate. We strive to carry on Simon Wiesenthal’s legacy as a member of the international Simon Wiesenthal Center organization. We continue to have a Nazi Hunter at work – Dr. Efraim Zuroff works out of the Jerusalem office through our numerous Holocaust studies and education programs.
Simon Wiesenthal, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, dedicated his life to documenting the crimes of the Holocaust and ensuring that the perpetrators of those crimes be brought to justice. "When history looks back," Wiesenthal explained, "I want people to know the Nazis weren’t able to kill millions of people and get away with it." His work stands as a reminder and a warning for future generations on how to fight antisemitism and why Holocaust education is so important. His intentions were twofold: to educate future generations about the horrors that can manifest from prejudice and intolerance left unchecked, and the importance of justice through accountability. Wiesenthal should be recognized as unique in light of the fact that his concerted effort to ensure that his pursuit of justice was not an act of vengeance.
Simon Wiesenthal was born on December 31, 1908 in Buczacz, which is now known as the Lvov Oblast section of the Ukraine. Wiesenthal studied at the Technical University of Prague, from which he received his degree in architectural engineering in 1932. In 1936, Simon married Cyla Mueller and worked in an architectural office in Lvov. Life was relatively comfortable for the young married couple until the war broke out in September of 1939.
In 1939, the city of Lvov found itself under Soviet control, which presented a number of professional challenges for the young architect. As a result, Wiesenthal began work as a bedspring mechanic in a factory. When the Germans displaced the Russians in 1941 during the Third Reich, a former employee helped him escape execution by the Nazis. Unfortunately, he was unable to escape the Nazis altogether and was incarcerated shortly thereafter. Following his detention in the Janowska concentration camp, he and his wife were assigned to the forced labour camp serving the Ostbahn Works, the repair shop for Lvov's Eastern Railroad.
With the help of the deputy director, Wiesenthal escaped the Ostbahn camp in October 1943, just before the Germans began liquidating all the inmates. In June 1944, he was recaptured and sent back to Janowska where he would almost certainly have been killed had the German eastern front not collapsed under the advancing Red Army. The inmates were sent on the death march. Very few of the prisoners survived the westward trek, which passed through Plaszow, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald, and eventually ended in Mauthausen. Weighing less than 100 pounds, Wiesenthal was barely alive when Mauthausen was liberated on May 5, 1945, as the Third Reich ended.
In his memoir, Wiesenthal recalls a conversation he shared with an SS corporal. The Corporal said to him, "You would tell the truth [about the death camps] to the people in America. That's right. And you know what would happen, Wiesenthal? They wouldn't believe you. They’d say you were mad. Might even put you into an asylum. How can anyone believe this terrible business - unless he has lived through it?" Wiesenthal’s post-war experience can, in many ways, be seen not only as the pursuit of justice but also as a way to ensure that the words of this SS corporal would never bear any truth.
As soon as his health was sufficiently restored, Wiesenthal began gathering and preparing evidence on Nazi atrocities for the War Crimes Section of the United States Army. His quest for Holocaust education and fighting antisemitism had begun. As founder and head of the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna, the freelance Nazi hunter, usually with the cooperation of the Israeli, Austrian, former West German and other governments, ferreted out nearly 1,100 Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, Franz Stangl, Erich Rajakowitsch, Franz Murer, Karl Silberbauer (who had arrested Anne Frank and her family), Valerian D. Trifa and Hermine Braunsteiner. In October 1966 alone, sixteen SS officers, nine of them found by Wiesenthal, went on trial for their participation in the extermination of Jews in Lvov.
Despite early successes, there was still a tremendous amount of work left to be done. Germany’s war criminal files contained more than 90,000 names, most of them of people who have never been tried. Aside from the case overload, there was also the challenge of keeping the pursuit of Nazi war criminals relevant to the greater public. Despite these challenges, the impact of Wiesenthal’s work on global justice, Holocaust education and fighting antisemitism were enormous.
Those brought to trial by Wiesenthal, unlike the war criminals brought to justice at Nuremberg who were tried on accounts of war crimes, were tried for crimes against humanity – a far more serious charge, as this category not only included war crimes but genocide and other violations of human rights. In this respect, Wiesenthal’s work can be regarded as the early stages of what we have come to recognize today as retributive justice, which uses the Western legal system to protect human rights worldwide. The International Criminal Court, which was established by the Rome Statute in 2002, is one of the most recent, large-scale and internationally well-known examples of retributive justice efforts in our world today and it can be linked back to the work of Simon Wiesenthal.
In an effort to keep his ideals of justice, tolerance and the preservation of human rights alive, the Simon Wiesenthal Center was founded in November 1977. Today, together with its world-renowned Museums of Tolerance in Los Angeles and New York, the Simon Wiesenthal Center is an international centre for Holocaust remembrance, fighting antisemitism and the defence of human rights worldwide.
Wiesenthal is the recipient of many honours from governments and associations around the world. He received the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 1980, the French Legion of Honour in 1986, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000, and an honorary British Knighthood in 2004. Nevertheless, he is most proud of the establishment of the Center itself. He is remembered saying, “I have received many honours in my lifetime. When I die, these honours will die with me. But the Simon Wiesenthal Center will live on as my legacy."
On September 20, 2005, Simon Wiesenthal died peacefully in his sleep at his home. In his eulogy, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said, "As you go to your eternal repose, I am sure there is a great stirring in heaven as the soul of the millions murdered during the Nazi Holocaust get ready to welcome Simon Wiesenthal, the man who stood up for their honour and never let the world forget them."