Simon Wiesenthal's life did not end like that of his 89 relatives, including his mother, who perished at the hands of the Nazis. Wiesenthal survived 12 concentration camps and only succumbed to death Tuesday at the age of 96, after dedicating the last six decades to hunting down the Nazis who cut short the lives of so many of his loved ones.
Special Report: A tribute to Simon Wiesenthal 1908 - 2005 >>
Wiesenthal died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Vienna. But as long as he lived, Wiesenthal was determined that no Nazi enjoy such a privilege. To that end, he roamed the earth tracking Nazis, eventually making over 1,000 pay for their crimes. Most notably, Adolf Eichmann was found in Argentina, captured by Israeli operatives, and hanged here. Wiesenthal's name has since become synonymous with honoring the victims of the Holocaust, a silent shout of "Never Again" accenting its every recitation.
"When history looks back, I want people to know that the Nazis weren't able to kill millions of people and get away with it," Wiesenthal once replied to a question on why he chose his line of work.
Nazi-hunting, of course, isn't a profession one aspires to as a child; it is only by virtue of cruel circumstance and intense single-mindedness that one enters such a career path. Indeed, few have followed in his footsteps.
"He just took the job. It was a job no one else wanted. He was the only full-time Nazi hunter," Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, told The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview Tuesday morning.
Born on December 31, 1908 in what is now Lvov, Ukraine, Wiesenthal was denied admission in the local polytechnic institute because of its quota on Jews. He instead attended the Technical University of Prague, where he studied architectural engineering.
He worked as an architect for three years before World War II struck. He was able to provide his blond-haired, blue-eyed wife, Cyla, with false papers allowing her to pose as a Pole and escape execution. He didn't try to do the same for himself, he told the Post a few years ago. "What, with my Jewish face?" he said.
Instead, he escaped from a series of work and then death camps, surviving a death march before being rescued by American forces at Mauthausen in May of 1945.
He and his wife both believed the other dead, but later that year they were reunited. Their only daughter, Pauline, was born the next year. She has spent most of her adult life in Herzliya. Cyla Wiesenthal passed away in 2003
But the touch of his work has been felt well beyond the family circle.
"He kept the memory alive when no one had time to hunt Nazis. In the 1950s, the US was busy with the Cold War, while Israel had its own troubles with the Arabs," Hier said. "One must understand that before writers like [Elie] Wiesel or directors like [Steven] Spielberg created movies and books, the Holocaust was on the way to being forgotten. But when Simon went after Nazis, it made news."
And go after them he did.
"A day after World War II ended, Wiesenthal handed over a crumbling list of Nazis to US Army intelligence," according to Hier. "He also cooperated with Israeli authorities, especially the Mossad."
There has been much controversy about the extent of his collaboration with Israeli agents in the capture of Eichmann.
Although often accused of exaggerating his role in Eichmann's capture, Wiesenthal did not claim sole responsibility, only saying that he knew by 1954 where Eichmann was.
Eichmann's capture "was a teamwork of many who did not know each other," Wiesenthal told AP in 1972. "I do not know if and to what extent reports I sent to Israel were used."
Less controversial was his role in finding Austrian policeman Karl Silberbauer, who he believed arrested the Dutch teenager Anne Frank and sent her to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she died.
Wiesenthal decided to pursue Silberbauer in 1958 after a youth told him he did not believe in Frank's existence and murder, but would if Wiesenthal could find the man who arrested her. His five-year search resulted in Silberbauer's 1963 capture.
If his spy drama moves brought attention, he was able to capitalize on world interest and convert it into awareness of Holocaust crimes and their victims. An international network of centers bearing his name promote tolerance of all peoples across the globe, though the Jerusalem office remains focused on finding Nazis before they, like Wiesenthal, pass on.
Wiesenthal accomplished much of his successes with a limited and sometimes non-existant budget. According to Rabbi Hier, "For years, he was all by himself. He was even forced to close the center several times in the past because he didn't have money. In the mid 50s he even received a tip that Adolf Eichmann was in Argentina but was unable to afford the trip at the time."
Until a few years before his death, he came to his small office in Vienna for work each day, even after a bomb exploded in front of his house in 1982, necessitating a security guard at home and at work. Though colleagues moved onto the US, Israel, and Australia, he told the Post years ago that he needed to be on the spot.
Austria made strides in overcoming its denial of its mistreatment of the Jews thanks in large part to Wiesenthal's tireless if controversial stumping for his cause.
His funeral is to be held Friday in Herzliya.
"I have received many honors in my lifetime," Weisenthal once said of the more than 50 awards he has received from European countries, Jewish groups, and human rights organizations. "When I die, these honors will die with me. But the Simon Wiesenthal Center will live on as my legacy."
Shani Rosenfelder and AP contributed to this report.
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