The name Simon Wiesenthal has come to be synonymous with the term “Nazi hunter.” After his liberation by American forces in 1945, Wiesenthal left his profession as an architectural engineer to take on a new calling: memorializing the six million of his fellow Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and bringing their killers to justice.
(In recent years historians have taken to questioning how much credit Wiesenthal actually deserves in some of the bigger-name cases. More on that later in the article.)
Wiesenthal (1908-2005) is credited with the prosecution of more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution, and Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo official who arrested Anne Frank. From the small office of his Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna, he dedicated his life to collecting and distributing information on war criminals through a network of informers, government agents, journalists, and even former Nazis. He detailed these efforts in The Murderers Among Us (1967) and Justice, Not Vengeance (1989).
Wiesenthal single-mindedly pursued his work notwithstanding death threats made against him and his family. (In 1982 he escaped unharmed when his house in Vienna was damaged by a bomb. He rejected pleas from his supporters to relocate, insisting there was a symbolic and important purpose to be served in conducting his work from a bastion of Nazism and anti-Semitism.)
A humanitarian of international prominence, he was honored by dozens of nations and institutions. Among those awards: a special gold medal presented to him by President Jimmy Carter at the White House, and the Jerusalem Gold Medal, bestowed on him by Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek.
Born into an Orthodox family in what was then Czechoslovakia, Wiesenthal, after being rejected by the Technical University at Lvov because he was a Jew, studied at the Czech University of Prague, graduating with a degree in architecture from Lemberg University. After serving between 1941 and 1945 as an inmate in various concentration camps including Janowska, Plaszow Grossrossen, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen he joined the American Commission for War Crimes, worked with the Office of Strategic Services and the Counter-Intelligence Corps, and was later transferred to the O.S.S. at Linz. He also headed the Jewish Central Committee of the United States Zone of Austria, a welfare and relief organization.
After completing his army work, he established his Jewish Historical Documentation Center in 1946 in the American Zone in Linz, Austria, which he eventually reopened in Vienna. In his later years he spoke out in favor of war crimes trials for the perpetrators of genocide in the former Yugoslavia, and he lent his name to the Holocaust study center and Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
In April 1993, after I became one of the first guests to be accorded the privilege of touring the new United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, I wrote to Wiesenthal, with whom I regularly corresponded, to share my impressions of the new institution – which I characterized as a monumentally emotional experience and a brilliant success – and I asked him what he thought of the project.
In what is undoubtedly one of the finest Wiesenthal letters extant, a May 5, 1993 signed correspondence on his Documentation Center letterhead, exhibited here, he devotes the major part of it to his views of the museum and contrasts it with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles:
With regard to my opinion on the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., I have not yet had an opportunity to visit this and therefore cannot say anything specific about it. In February, we opened the Holocaust Museum of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and this is surely different than the one in Washington, because here we look upon the Holocaust as a consequence of hatred and racism which still continues to exist. Thus the Museum in Los Angeles begins with everyday racism, and before coming to the Holocaust, the visitor can also see the genocide on the Armenians, the crimes committed against the American Indians and the bestialities in Vietnam and other places in the world. All of this serves as a sort of introduction for a better understanding of what happened in Nazi times when six million Jews and millions of others were killed. The Museum in Los Angeles cost approximately $50 million.Saul Jay Singer