When the Germans first came to my city in Galicia, half the population was Jewish: one hundred fifty thousand Jews. When the Germans were gone, five hundred were alive. ... Many times I was thinking that everything 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.
Wiesenthal was born at 11:30 pm on 31 December 1908, in Buczacz (Buchach), Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria (then part of Austria-Hungary, now Ternopil Oblast, in Ukraine). His father, Asher Wiesenthal, was a wholesaler who had emigrated from the Russian Empire in 1905 to escape the frequent pogroms against Jews. A reservist in the Austro-Hungarian Army, Asher was called to active duty in 1914 at the start of World War I. He died in combat on the Eastern Front in 1915. The remainder of the family—Simon, his younger brother Hillel, and his mother Rosa—fled to Vienna as the Russian army took control of Galicia. The two boys attended a German-language Jewish school. The family returned to Buczacz in 1917 after the Russians retreated. The area changed hands several more times before the war ended in November 1918.
With an interest in art and drawing, Wiesenthal chose to study architecture. His first choice was to attend the Lwów Polytechnic (Polish: Politechnika Lwowska), but he was turned away because the school's Jewish quota had already been filled. He instead enrolled at the Czech Technical University in Prague, where he studied from 1928 until 1932. He was apprenticed as a building Engineer through 1934 and 1935, spending most of that period in Odessa. He married Cyla in 1936 when he returned to Galicia.
Wiesenthal and his brother attended high school at the Humanistic Gymnasium in Buchach, where classes were taught in Polish. There Simon met his Future wife, Cyla Müller, who he would marry in 1936. Hillel fell and broke his back in 1923 and died the following year. Rosa remarried in 1926 and moved to Dolyna with her new husband, Isack Halperin, who owned a tile factory there. Wiesenthal remained in Buczacz, living with the Müller family, until he graduated from high school—on his second attempt—in 1928.
In Europe, World War II began in September 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland. As a result of the partitioning of Poland under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, the city of Lwów was annexed by the Soviets and became known as Lvov in Russian or Lviv in Ukrainian. Wiesenthal's stepfather, still living in Dolyna, was arrested as a capitalist; he later died in a Soviet prison. Wiesenthal's mother came to live with Wiesenthal and Cyla in Lvov. He bribed an official to prevent his own deportation under Clause 11, a rule that prevented all Jewish professionals and intellectuals from living within 100 kilometres (62 mi) of the city, which was under Soviet occupation until the Germans invaded in June 1941.
In late 1941, Wiesenthal and his wife were transferred to Janowska concentration camp and forced to work at the Eastern Railway Repair Works. He painted swastikas and other inscriptions on captured Soviet railway engines, and Cyla was put to work polishing the brass and nickel. In exchange for providing details about the railways, Wiesenthal obtained false identity papers for his wife from a member of the Armia Krajowa, a Polish underground organisation. She travelled to Warsaw, where she was put to work in a German radio factory. She spent time in two different labour camps as well. Conditions were harsh and her health was permanently damaged, but she survived the war. The couple was reunited in 1945, and their daughter Paulinka was born the following year.
Franz Stangl was a supervisor at the Hartheim Euthanasia Centre, part of Action T4, an early Nazi euthanasia programme that was responsible for the deaths of over 70,000 mentally ill or physically deformed people in Germany. In February 1942, he was commander at the Sobibor extermination camp and in August of the same year he was transferred to Treblinka. During his time at these camps, he oversaw the deaths of nearly 900,000 people. While in U.S. detention for two years, he remained unidentified as a war Criminal because so few witnesses had survived Sobibor and Treblinka that authorities never realised who he was. He escaped while on a roadwork detail in Linz in May 1948. After he made his way to Rome, the Caritas relief agency provided him with a Red Cross passport and a boat ticket to Syria. His family joined him there a year later and they emigrated to Brazil in 1951.
Josef Mengele was a medical officer assigned to Auschwitz concentration camp from 1943 until the end of the war. As well as making most of the selections of inmates as they arrived by train from all over Europe, he performed unscientific and usually deadly experiments on the inmates. He left the camp in January 1945 as the Red Army approached and was briefly in American custody in Weiden in der Oberpfalz, but was released. He took work as a farm hand in rural Germany, remaining until 1949, when he decided to flee the country; he acquired a Red Cross passport and left for Argentina; he set up a Business in Buenos Aires in 1951. Acting on information received from Wiesenthal, West German authorities tried to extradite Mengele in 1960, but he could not be found; he had in fact moved to Paraguay in 1958. He moved to Brazil in 1961 and lived there until his death in 1979.
After several days in hiding, Scheiman rejoined his wife, and Wiesenthal was taken by members of the underground to the nearby village of Kulparkow, where he remained until the end of 1943. Soon afterwards the Janowska camp was liquidated; this made it unsafe to hide in the nearby countryside, so Wiesenthal returned to Lvov, where he spent three days hiding in a closet at the Scheiman's apartment. He next moved to the apartment of Paulina Busch, for whom he had previously forged an identity card. He was arrested there, hiding under the floorboards, on 13 June 1944 and taken back to the remains of the camp at Janowska. Wiesenthal tried but failed to commit suicide to avoid being interrogated about his connections with the underground. In the end there was no time for interrogations, as Soviet forces were advancing into the area. SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Friedrich Warzok, the new camp commandant, rounded up the remaining prisoners and transported them to Przemyśl, 97 kilometres (60 mi) west of Lvov, where he put them to work building fortifications. By September Warzok and his men were reassigned to the front, and Wiesenthal and the other surviving captives were sent to the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp.
Wiesenthal wrote a number of books, some of which contain conflicting stories and tales, many of which were invented. Several authors, including Segev and British author Guy Walters, feel that Wiesenthal's autobiographies are not reliable sources of information about his life and activities. For Example, Wiesenthal would describe two people fighting over one of the lists he had prepared of survivors of the Holocaust; the two look up and recognise each other and have a tearful reunion. In one account it is a man and wife, and in another telling it is two brothers. Wiesenthal's memoirs variously claim he had spent time in as many as eleven concentration camps; the actual number was five. A drawing he made in 1945 that he claimed was a scene he witnessed in Mauthausen had actually been sketched from photos that appeared in Life magazine that June. He particularly over-emphasised his role in the capture of Eichmann, claiming that he prevented Veronika Eichmann from having her husband declared dead in 1947, when in fact the declaration was denied "at the instigation of the authorities." Wiesenthal said that he had retained his Eichmann file when he sent his research materials to Yad Vashem in 1952; in fact he sent all his materials there, and it was his counterpart, Tuviah Friedman in Vienna, who had retained materials on Eichmann. Isser Harel, Director of the Mossad at the time, has stated that Wiesenthal had no role in the capture of Eichmann.
Wiesenthal worked for the American Office of Strategic Services for a year, and continued to collect information on both victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust. He assisted the Berihah, an underground organisation that smuggled Jewish survivors into the British Mandate for Palestine. Wiesenthal helped arrange for forged papers, food supplies, transportation, and so on. In February 1947, he and 30 other volunteers founded the Jewish Documentation Center in Linz to gather information for Future war crimes trials. They collected 3,289 depositions from concentration camp survivors still living in Europe. However, as the US and the Soviet Union lost interest in conducting further trials, a similar group headed by Tuviah Friedman in Vienna closed its office in 1952, and Wiesenthal's closed in 1954. Almost all of the documentation collected at both centres was forwarded to the Yad Vashem archives in Israel. Wiesenthal, employed full-time by two Jewish welfare agencies, continued his work with refugees. As it became clear that the former Allies were no longer interested in pursuing the work of bringing Nazi war Criminals to justice, Wiesenthal persisted, believing the survivors were obligated to take on the task. His work became a way to memorialise and remember all the people that had been lost. He told biographer Alan Levy in 1974:
Known as "the Mare of Majdanek", Hermine Braunsteiner was a guard who served at Majdanek and Ravensbrück concentration camps. A cruel and sadistic woman, she earned her nickname for her propensity to kick her victims to death. She served a three-year sentence in Austria for her activities in Ravensbrück, but had not yet been charged for any of her crimes at Majdanek when she emigrated to the United States in 1959. She became an American citizen in 1963.
Wiesenthal claimed to have information that placed Mengele in several locations: on the Greek island of Kythnos in 1960, Cairo in 1961, in Spain in 1971, and in Paraguay in 1978, the latter eighteen years after he had left. In 1982, he offered a reward of $100,000 for Mengele's capture and insisted as late as 1985—six years after Mengele's death—that he was still alive. The Mengele family admitted to authorities in 1985 that he had died in 1979; the body was exhumed and its identity was confirmed. Earlier that year Wiesenthal had served as one of the judges at a mock trial of Mengele, held in Jerusalem.
In spite of Wiesenthal's protests, in late 1963 his centre in Vienna was taken over by a local community group, so he immediately set up a new independent office, funded using donations and his stipend from the Mossad. As the 20-year statute of limitations for German war crimes was about to expire, Wiesenthal began lobbying to have it extended or removed entirely. In March 1965 the Bundestag deferred the matter for five years, effectively extending the expiration date. Similar action was taken by the Austrian government. But as time went on, it became more difficult to obtain prosecutions. Witnesses grew older and were less likely to be able to offer valuable testimony. Funding for trials was inadequate, as the governments of Austria and Germany became less interested in obtaining convictions for wartime events, preferring to forget the Nazi past.
Wiesenthal was first told about Braunsteiner in early 1964 via a chance encounter in Tel Aviv with someone who had seen her performing selections at Majdanek—deciding who was to be assigned to slave labour and who was to immediately be killed in the gas chambers. When he returned to Vienna he had an operative visit one of her relatives to clandestinely collect information. Wiesenthal soon traced Braunsteiner's whereabouts to Queens, New York, so he notified the Israeli police and the New York Times. In spite of Wiesenthal's efforts to expedite the matter, Braunsteiner was not extradited to Germany until 1973. Her trial was part of a joint indictment with nine other defendants accused of killing 250,000 people at Majdanek. She was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1981 and died in 1999.
It was probably Stangl's brother-in law who informed Wiesenthal of Stangl's whereabouts in 1964. Concerned that Stangl would be warned and escape, Wiesenthal quietly prepared a dossier with the assistance of Austrian Minister of Justice Hans Klecatsky. Stangl was arrested outside his home in São Paulo on 28 February 1967 and was extradited to Germany on 22 June. A month later Wiesenthal's book The Murderers Among Us was released. Wiesenthal's publishers advertised that he had been responsible for locating over 800 Nazis, a claim that had no basis in fact but was nonetheless repeated by reputable newspapers such as the New York Times. Stangl was sentenced to life in prison and died of heart failure in June 1971, having confessed his guilt to biographer Gitta Sereny the previous day.
In 1968, Wiesenthal published Zeilen der hoop. De geheime missie van Christoffel Columbus (translated in 1972 as Sails of Hope: The Secret Mission of Christopher Columbus), which was his first non-fiction book not on the subject of the Holocaust. In the book, Wiesenthal put forward his theory that Christopher Columbus was a Sephardi Jew from Spain who practised his religion in secret to avoid persecution. (The consensus of most historians is that Columbus came from the Republic of Genoa, in present-day Italy). Wiesenthal argued that the quest for the New World was not motivated by wealth or fame, but rather by Columbus's Desire to find a place of refuge for the Jews, who were suffering immense persecution in Spain at the time (and in 1492 would be subjected to the Edict of Expulsion). Wiesenthal also believed that Columbus's concept of "sailing west" was based on Biblical prophecies (certain verses in the Book of Isaiah) rather than any prior geographical knowledge.
Shortly after Bruno Kreisky was inaugurated as Austrian chancellor in April 1970, Wiesenthal pointed out to the press that four of his new cabinet appointees had been members of the Nazi Party. In an address in June, Kreisky's Minister of Education and Culture Leopold Gratz characterised Wiesenthal's Documentation Centre of the Association of Jewish Victims of the Nazi Regime as a private spy ring, invading the privacy of innocent parties. In an interview a week later, Kreisky himself described Wiesenthal as a "Jewish fascist", a remark he later denied making. Wiesenthal discovered that he would be unable to sue, because under Austrian law Kreisky was protected by parliamentary immunity.
When Kurt Waldheim was named secretary-general of the United Nations in 1971, Wiesenthal reported—without checking very thoroughly—that there was no evidence that he had a Nazi past. This analysis had been supported by the opinions of the American Counterintelligence Corps and Office of Strategic Services when they examined his records right after the war. However, Waldheim's 1985 autobiography did not include his war Service following his recuperation from a 1941 injury. When he returned to active duty in 1942, he was posted to Yugoslavia and Greece, and had knowledge of murders of civilians that took place in those locations during his Service there. The Austrian news magazine Profil published a story in March 1986—during his campaign for the presidency of Austria—that Waldheim had been a member of the Sturmabteilung (SA). The New York Times soon reported that Waldheim had failed to reveal all of the facts about his war Service. Wiesenthal, embarrassed, attempted to help Waldheim defend himself. The World Jewish Congress investigated the issue, but the Israeli attorney general concluded that their material was insufficient evidence for a conviction. Waldheim was elected President in July 1986. A panel of historians tasked with investigating the case issued a report eighteen months later. They concluded that, while there was no evidence that Waldheim had committed atrocities, he must have known they were occurring, yet did nothing. Wiesenthal unsuccessfully demanded that Waldheim resign. The World Jewish Congress successfully lobbied to have Waldheim barred from entering the United States.
Wiesenthal was portrayed by Israeli actor Shmuel Rodensky in the film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's The Odessa File (1974). After the film's release, Wiesenthal received many reports of sightings of the subject of the film, Eduard Roschmann, commandant of the Riga Ghetto. These sightings proved to be false alarms, but in 1977 a person living in Buenos Aires who saw the movie reported to police that Roschmann was living nearby. The fugitive escaped to Paraguay, where he died of a heart attack a month later. In Ira Levin's novel The Boys from Brazil, the character of Yakov Liebermann (called Ezra Liebermann and played by Laurence Olivier in the film) is modelled on Wiesenthal. Olivier visited Wiesenthal, who offered advice on how to play the role. Wiesenthal attended the film's New York premiere in 1978. Ben Kingsley portrayed him in the HBO film Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story (1989).
When his re-election in 1975 seemed unsure, Kreisky proposed that his Social Democratic Party should form a coalition with the Freedom Party, headed by Friedrich Peter. Wiesenthal was in possession of information proving that Peter had been a member of the 1 SS Infantry Brigade, a unit that had exterminated over 13,000 Jewish civilians in Ukraine in 1941–42. He decided not to reveal this information to the press until after the election, but forwarded his dossier to President Rudolf Kirchschläger. Peter denied having participated in, or having knowledge of, any atrocities. In the end, Kreisky's party won a clear majority and did not form the coalition.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles was founded in 1977 by Rabbi Marvin Hier using large donations from Philanthropists Samuel Belzberg and Joseph Tennenbaum. Hier's organisation paid Wiesenthal an honorarium for the right to use his name. The center helped with the campaign to remove the statute of limitations on Nazi crimes and continues the hunt for suspected Nazi war Criminals, but today its primary activities include Holocaust remembrance, education, and fighting antisemitism. The center's Holocaust museum, the largest in the United States, opened in 1993. Moriah Films, the center's media division, has won two Academy Awards, including one for the documentary Genocide (1982). Wiesenthal was not always happy with the way the center was run. He thought the museum was not dignified enough and that he should have a larger say in the overall operations. He even wrote to the Board of Directors requesting Hier's removal, but in the end had to be content with being a figurehead.
Wiesenthal received many death threats over the years. After a bomb placed by neo-Nazis exploded outside his house in Vienna on 11 June 1982, police guards were stationed outside his home 24 hours a day. Cyla found the stressful nature of her husband's career and the dragged-out legal matters regarding Kreisky to be overwhelming, and she sometimes suffered from depression.
Wiesenthal was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war. Rumour had it that the Nobel Committee would give the prize to a Holocaust-related candidate. Fellow Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, also nominated, began a campaign in hopes of winning the prize, travelling to France, Ethiopia and Oslo for speaking tours and humanitarian work. Rabbi Hier of the Wiesenthal Center urged Wiesenthal to lobby for the prize as well, but other than delivering a lecture in Oslo, Wiesenthal did little to promote his candidacy. When Wiesel was awarded the 1986 prize, Wiesenthal claimed the World Jewish Congress must have influenced the Committee's decision, a claim the WJC denied. Biographer Tom Segev speculates that the loss may have been because of the negative publicity over the Waldheim affair.
In a press conference a short time after the election and Wiesenthal's revelations, Kreisky said Wiesenthal used "the methods of a quasi-political Mafia." Wiesenthal filed a libel lawsuit (although Kreisky had the power to declare immunity if he so chose), and when Kreisky later accused Wiesenthal of being an agent of the Gestapo, working with the Judenrat in Lvov, these accusations were incorporated into the lawsuit as well. The suit was decided in Wiesenthal's favour in 1989, but after Kreisky's death nine months later his heirs refused to pay. When the relevant archives were later opened for research, no evidence was found that Wiesenthal had been a collaborator.
Wiesenthal has been the subject of several documentaries. The Art of Remembrance: Simon Wiesenthal was produced in 1994 by filmmakers Hannah Heer and Werner Schmiedel for River Lights Pictures. The documentary I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal, narrated by Nicole Kidman, was released by Moriah Films in 2007. Wiesenthal is a one-person show written and performed by Tom Dugan that premiered in 2014.
Wiesenthal spent time at his office at the Documentation Centre of the Association of Jewish Victims of the Nazi Regime in Vienna even as he approached his ninetieth birthday. The last Nazi he had a hand in bringing to trial was Untersturmführer Julius Viel, who was convicted in 2001 of shooting seven Jewish prisoners. Cyla died on 10 November 2003, at age 95. Wiesenthal retired shortly afterward. "I have survived them all. If there were any left, they'd be too old and weak to stand trial today. My work is done," said Wiesenthal. Wiesenthal died on 20 September 2005, at age 96, and was buried in Herzliya, Israel.
With a reputation as a storyteller, Wiesenthal was the author of several memoirs containing tales that are only loosely based on actual events. In particular, he exaggerated his role in the capture of Eichmann in 1960. Wiesenthal died in his sleep at age 96 in Vienna on 20 September 2005 and was buried in the city of Herzliya in Israel. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, located in Los Angeles, is named in his honor.
Though most of the Jews still alive in Linz after the war had emigrated, Wiesenthal decided to stay on, partly because the family of Adolf Eichmann lived a few blocks away from him. Eichmann had been in charge of the transportation and deportation of Jews in the Nazi Final Solution to the Jewish Question: a plan, finalised at the Wannsee Conference—at which Eichmann took the minutes—to exterminate all the Jews in Europe. After the war, Eichmann hid in Austria using forged identity papers until 1950, when he left via Italy and moved to Argentina under an assumed name. Hoping to obtain information on Eichmann's whereabouts, Wiesenthal continuously monitored the remaining members of the immediate family in Linz until they vanished in 1952.