Newsletter

PDF Subscribe

YouTube-Channel

The Life of Simon Wiesenthal


Simon Wiesenthal Portrait.

Simon Wiesenthal fought insatiably against indifference towards the crimes of National Socialism, against the failure to call its perpetrators to account. From the day of his liberation from the concentration camp Mauthausen onwards, he made it his life's task to find Nazi perpetrators and bring them to justice. His creed in this battle was „Justice, not Revenge“, as one of his many books' titles says.

 

He was born on New Years' night 1908 in Buczacz, in the formerly Austrian territory of Galicia and studied architecture at the Technical University in Prague after he had been denied admission to the University of Lvov (then part of Poland) due to the antisemitic numerus clausus laws. Having completed his studies in 1932, he returned to Galicia, married his childhood sweetheart Cyla in 1936 and established an architect's office. Lvov was joined to the Sowiet Union through the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939, and Wiesenthal's office was nationalized. He was arrested in July 1941, after Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union. There followed several unsuccessful attempts to escape and a journey of suffering through several concentration camps. Weakened and emaciated, Simon Wiesenthal was freed from the concentration camp Mauthausen by the US army in May 1945. Cyla Wiesenthal had survived under a false name as a slave labourer in Germany. They met again in Linz. Their daughter Pauline was born one year later.

 

Having supported the US occupation forces in Linz in their search for former SS members, Wiesenthal founded the documentation centre „Jewish Historic Documentation“ („Jüdische Historische Dokumentation“) in 1947. The centre collected witness statements and evidence on Nazi perpatrators and forwarded these to the responsible courts of law. After initial success, an interest in the persecution of Nazi criminals waned during the Cold War, and Wiesenthal eventually had to dissolve the centre due to a lack of resources and support. Hundreds of files, tens of thousands of documents, indexes of victims and of perpetrators were thus given to the memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. In 1961, having moved to Vienna, Wiesenthal reignited the activities he had begun in Linz – first within the “Jewish Community” (“Israelische Kultusgemeinde”) in Zelinkagasse, and then, following differences between the two, eventually at Rudolfsplatz. Finally, the “Documentation Centre of the Association of Jews Persecuted by the Nazi Regime” („Dokumentationszentrum des Bundes Jüdischer Verfolgter des Naziregimes“) moved to Salztorgasse, near the former Viennese Gestapo headquarters on Morzinplatz.


From then on, Wiesenthal meticulously noted every available information, followed up on every rumour on the location of the persons he was searching, corresponded with offices and private persons throughout the world on the possible whereabouts of Nazi criminals. It is thanks to his activities that so many could be found and brought to justice. They include among many others SS Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, the main organiser of and one of those bearing central responsibility for the deportation and murder of the European Jews, the Viennese Police officer Karl Silberbauer, who had arrested Anne Frank, Franz Stangl, the commander of the extermination camp Treblinka, and Franz Murer, the „butcher of Vilnius“. Until this day, his archive shelves are laden with thousands of files that Wiesenthal had assembled on Nazi perpetrators. They include numerous files documenting Wiesenthal's decade-long search for the concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele, as well as files and documents on the pursuit and location of Adolf Eichmann and the former Ravensbrück concentration camp guard Hermine Brausteiner-Ryan.


In the climate of the 1960s, which was all but open, obstacles were repeatedly placed in his course, he was often judged to be a troublemaker and malcontent, and as such denigrated and defamed. Again and again, Simon Wiesenthal criticised the lack of interest Austrian officials showed in the search for and the legal prosecution of Nazi perpetrators. However, his statements and memoranda remained unheeded for a long time, while the public prosecution and police claimed to be overburdened, investigations were delayed; there often were former Nazi party members among the investigating officers. Although he often faced opposition in public, Wiesenthal did not tire of ensuring that the genocide of Jews, Roma and Sinti as well as other groups persecuted by the Nazis would not fail to be avenged: Many of the investigations against perpetrators, some of them prominent, would not have come to pass without his resolute engagement. His physical safety was also continuously under threat, and in 1982 he only narrowly escaped a bomb attack.

 

In 1975, there erupted a bitter, year-long conflict between Wiesenthal and Bruno Kreisky, who was then the Austrian chancellor. One of the conflict's initial issues was the SS past of Friedrich Peter, leader of the FPÖ (Austrian Freedom Party). During a press conference, Kreisky accused Wiesenthal of having collaborated with the Gestapo, without being able to produce any evidence for his claims. Although Wiesenthal retracted the suit against Kreisky and the chancellor withdrew his accusations, the conflict smoldered on. Kreisky was found guilty of libel in 1990.

 

With the „Jewish World Congress“ (WJC), a public dispute arose in 1986 in the course of the „Waldheim affair“ about the Austrian president's SA membership and the false claims he had made regarding his activities in Greece during the Second World War. Wiesenthal, who had initially adopted Waldheim's biographical details unquestioned, and did value Waldheim personally and politically, took on a differentiated, partly defensive stance towards Waldheim and demanded an international historical commission be installed. Such a commission was appointed by the Austrian federal government and it concluded that Waldheim was not personally guilty of war crimes, but was to be charged with having known of the deportation of Greek Jews and with concealing and whitewashing his wartime activities.

 

The Israeli historian Tom Segev published an extensive and sensitive biography of Simon Wiesenthal in 2010.

 

Simon Wiesenthal died in Vienna at the age of 96 years on September 20, 2005, two years after the death of his wife. He was buried in Herzliya-Pituach in Israel on September 23, 2005.

 

Simon Wiesenthal on the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute

 

I have been thinking for some time now about which institution in Austria or abroad I should entrust the collections of my archive to, in order to best enable access to the abundance of interesting material for historical research.

 

The initiative of the Jewish community organisation to establish and organise a Shoah research centre at the Rabensteig in Vienna presented the ideal solution to my problem. As an honorary citizen of the City of Vienna, it is a matter of great importance to me to know that the results of my work over many decades are well preserved in the heart of the city. Therefore I acquiesced to have the research centre bear my name.

 

This centre will moreover serve to bring together the scholarly and pedagogic work of existing institutions, such as the Institute for Contemporary History at the university and the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance.

 

It has only been a few years since Vienna received a memorial to the memory of its Jewish citizens who were murdered during National Socialism. Following my suggestion, it was thanks to the approval and the commitment of the Mayor of Vienna, Dr. Michael Häupl, that this could be realised. For the memory of the Shoah to be followed by knowledge of the Shoah, a research institute of international standing, as is now being planned, is a prerequisite.

 

I therefore appeal to the City of Vienna and the Republic of Austria for their support in the realisation of this project, which will be a credit to both and will balance a deficit in the area of historical research.

 

Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005)

 

Vienna, in the autumn of 2002

 

June 2021
M T W T F S S
31 1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30 1 2 3 4


The Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies (VWI) is funded by:

 

bmbwf en 179

 

wienkultur 179

 

 BKA Logo srgb