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Happy Birthday, Simon Wiesenthal, “Nazi Hunter”

December 31, 2010
by Lindsey Chapman
Simon Wiesenthal was a Holocaust survivor. After World War II he spent nearly six decades tracking down hundreds of Nazi criminals whom he considered most responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews, gypsies and others during the war.

Simon Wiesenthal’s Early Days

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Simon Wiesenthal was born on Dec. 31, 1908, in what is now Ukraine’s Lvov Oblast region. He graduated from the Gymnasium in 1928, and then applied to the Polytechnic Institute; he was rejected because quotas limited the number of Jewish students admitted. Wiesenthal chose to attend the Technical University of Prague, earning an architectural engineering degree in 1932.

In 1936, Wiesenthal married a woman named Cyla. As German troops came closer to home, he helped his wife escape by obtaining papers for her under a false name: Irene Kowalska. She lived in Warsaw for a time, and then in the Rhineland where she was forced into labor.

Meanwhile, Wiesenthal was arrested and moved around to 12 different concentration camps, where he started recording the names of Nazis who were committing crimes. He and Cyla were reunited in 1945; until that point, each had assumed the other was dead.

Wiesenthal’s Nazi Hunting

The end of the war allowed Wiesenthal the opportunity to actively pursue his goal of bringing criminals to justice. In fact, he is remembered for keeping memories of the Holocaust alive when others tried to forget it happened.

Calling himself a “deputy for the dead,” Wiesenthal said, “I want people to know the Nazis weren’t able to kill millions of people and get away with it.” He remarked that he never considered himself a “Jewish James Bond.” Rather, he relied on his photographic memory and persistence to focus particularly on finding criminals who had tried to disappear.

Wiesenthal founded the Jewish Documentation Center, which included a dedicated network of volunteers who helped secure pertinent information that could be used in trials against war criminals.

When he retired from his search for war criminals in 2003, Simon Wiesenthal reported that he had helped find 1,100 Nazis. During his quest, Wiesenthal helped locate Franz Stangl, commandant of the Nazis’ Treblinka and Sobibor concentration camps in Poland, as well as Karl Silberbauer, the man who arrested Anne Frank.

For his efforts, he has been praised and honored worldwide. His long list of awards includes an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Dutch Freedom Medal, the Luxembourg Freedom Medal and the French Legion of Honor.

The Rest of the Story

Wiesenthal died in 2005 at the age of 96. According to Bloomberg, he once told the Austrian magazine Format, “I found the mass murderers I was looking for. I survived them all.”

Today, Wiesenthal’s legacy continues in various forms, including a movie about his life. “I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal,” is a documentary tracing Wiesenthal’s life that focuses particularly on a broken promise to his wife, Cyla.

He had told her he would only spend three or four years tracking Nazi criminals, and then would move his family to Israel. They never left Austria. “If you want to cure Malaria, you have to live with the mosquitoes,” Wiesenthal said. “How could I simply restart my life where it had been interrupted and build houses?”
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