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December 31: Simon Wiesenthal

December 31, 2014

MTIwNjA4NjM0MDExMDI2OTU2Simon Wiesenthal, the best-known of several Nazi hunters who pursued German and Ukrainian war criminals for decades after World War II, was born in the Ukraine on this date in 1908. Weisenthal was a married architectural engineer when World War II began; he and his wife Cyla lost close to ninety family members under Nazi rule. Cyla was able to survive the war passing as a gentile; Simon served as a slave laborer in several camps and was barely alive at Mauthausen when the camp was liberated by U.S. troops in 1945. After the war, Wiesenthal headed the Jewish Central Committee of the U.S. Zone of Austria, a relief organization, and was reunited with his wife, whom he had thought dead. He presented a list of 100 concentration camp commandants, guards, and Gestapo members to the American occupation forces, for whom he worked as an interpreter. After the Nuremberg war crime trials, he and thirty volunteers founded the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz, Austria, in 1947, to assemble evidence for future trials, but the rapid advent of the Cold War mooted their work, and the files were transferred to Yad Vashem in 1954. It is Wiesenthal who first suggested to Israel’s security services, in 1954, that Adolf Eichmann was living in Argentina, where he would be captured in 1960. (However, Isser Harel, who headed Israel’s Security Services at the time of Eichmann’s capture, insisted that Wiesenthal played no role in the operation. Others in the field have also accused Wiesenthal of consistently exaggerating his achievements.) In 1966, sixteen SS officers, nine of them located by Wiesenthal, went on trial in Stuttgart, West Germany, including Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka and Sobibor, who oversaw the deaths of 900,000 and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Wiesenthal died in Vienna at 96 in 2005. His biographers have credited him with identifying some 1,100 Nazi war criminals during his years of research.

“[E]verything in life has a price, so to stay alive must also have a price. And my price was always that, if I lived, I must be deputy for many people who are not alive.” —Simon Wiesenthal