Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005), was the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization. A survivor of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II, he dedicated his life to documenting the war crimes of the Holocaust and to hunting down the perpetrators who had avoided prosecution to bring them to justice.
Simon Wiesenthal was born on December 31, 1908 in Austria-Hungary, in what is now Lviv, the Ukraine. After his father died during World War I, his mother remarried.
He received a degree in architectural engineering from the Technical University of Prague in 1932.
World War II
In 1941 he was detained in the Janowska concentration camp, then he and his wife were forced to work in a labor camp. In August 1942, Wiesenthal's mother died in the Belzec camp. His wife Cyla escaped to Warsaw that same year, but most of their family members died by the end of 1942. In October 1943 Wiesenthal escaped the Ostbahn labor camp, but was recaptured in June 1944. The Soviet Army advancing, Wiesenthal and other prisoners were forced to march westward through Plaszow, Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald, ending at Mauthausen in upper Austria. Mauthausen was liberated by United States Army troops on May 5, 1945. By then Weisenthal's health was very poor due to the harsh conditions he had been forced to endure, and in his memoirs he stated he weighed less than 100 pounds at the time the camp was liberated. But he had survived what many others had not. He was reunited with his wife Cyla in 1945, and their daughter was born the following year.
Activities after the War
Wiesenthal was determined that those who had perpetrated war crimes against civilians would not be forgotten, and began to work for the United States Army War Crimes Division, gathering information and preparing evidence for the Nuremberg trials.
He also worked for the Army's Office of Strategic Services and Counter-Intelligence Corps and headed the Jewish Central Committee of the United States Zone of Austria, a relief and welfare organization.
Soon after he went on to found the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz, Austria, for the purpose of assembling evidence for future trials, and ran the center until it closed in 1954.
Adolf Eichmann, a Gestapo Officer responsible for many deaths, had not been located, and Weisenthal was determined to bring him to justice for his crimes against humanity. In 1959 Eichmann was found living in Buenos Aires using an alias. He was tried, found guilty of mass murder, and executed on May 31, 1961. After Eichmann had been found, Wiesenthal reopened the Jewish Historical Documentation Center for the sole purpose of finding war criminals. He was able to locate hundreds of war criminals, including some high-profile people such as Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor concentration camps in Poland, and Hermine Braunsteiner, who had supervised children's exterminations at Majdanek. They were both tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.
For three decades Wiesenthal continued to locate Nazi war criminals who had fled and were living under new identities, and bring them to justice.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center was founded in 1977, and grew to have branches in many countries. At first, the focus of the center was on finding war criminals, and over time evolved into other areas. These days the direction of the center is towards holocaust remembrance and learning, and towards that goal, founded Moriah Films, to produce theatrical documentaries. The film company has produced nine films, including a 1991 documentary "Genocide" that won the Academy Award for best feature documentary, and a second Award winner in 1997, "The Long Way Home". In 1993 the center opened the Museum of Tolerance, located at 9786 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA, USA, which is visited by over 350,000 people every year.
Simon Wiesenthal received many humanitarian awards and honors, including:
- Dutch Freedom Medal
- Luxembourg Freedom Medal
- Award from French Legion of Honor
- U.S. Congressional Gold Medal from U.S. President Carter
- Presidential Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Clinton
- United Nations League for the Help of Refugees Award
- Honorary Knighthood of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II
In 1967 he wrote his memoirs, and in 1989, his book was made into a movie called: "Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story".
He also authored these books:
- Sunflower (1970)
- Sails of Hope (1973)
- Max and Helen" (1982)
- Krystyna (1987)
- Every Day Remembrance Day (1987)
- Justice Not Vengeance (1989)
He continued working his entire life towards bringing criminals to justice, (he lived to 96 years of age) and when asked his motivation for continuing his efforts to find war criminals, even in his older years and declining health, he explained by saying "I believe in God and life after death. When I come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask, ‘What have you done?,’ I can say, ‘I did not forget you’."