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He would never let us forget

Simon Wiesenthal, who helped track down hundreds of war criminals after World War II, died Tuesday at 96.

By wire services
Published September 21, 2005

Simon Wiesenthal, who survived a dozen concentration camps, then spent his life bringing Nazi war criminals to justice and searing the Holocaust into the conscience of the world, died Tuesday (Sept. 20, 2005). He was 96.

Mr. Wiesenthal died in his sleep at his home in Vienna, Austria, according to Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

Called the "deputy for the dead" and "avenging archangel" of the Holocaust, Mr. Wiesenthal after the war created a repository of concentration camp testimonials and dossiers on Nazis at his Jewish Documentation Center. He collected and disbursed tips on war criminals through a network of informers, government agents, journalists and even former Nazis. The information was used to help lawyers prosecute those responsible for some of the 20th century's most abominable crimes.

"When history looks back," Mr. Wiesenthal said, "I want people to know the Nazis weren't able to kill millions of people and get away with it." He warned on many occasions: "If we pardon this genocide, it will be repeated, and not only on Jews. If we don't learn this lesson, then millions died for nothing."

Mr. Wiesenthal's chief legacy, said Robert J. Lifton, author of The Nazi Doctors, a book about physicians who helped perpetrate the Holocaust, "wasn't so much his identifying particular Nazi criminals, because that could be exaggerated and oversimplified." Rather, Lifton said, "it was his insisting on an attitude of confronting what happened and constantly keeping what happened in mind and doing so at times when a lot of people would have preferred to forget."

With a grave and tenacious manner, undercurrents of humor and a flair for gaining attention, he was lionized in 1989 in an HBO movie Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story, based on his memoirs and starring Ben Kingsley. But he made it clear that he was not a "Jewish James Bond" engaging in derring-do. Instead, he used a photographic memory and extraordinary tenacity.

When Mr. Wiesenthal began his quest for justice in 1945, he was unknown, an emaciated man whose survival had made him believe in miracles. Yet he would say, "God must have been on leave during the Holocaust."

During the war, Mr. Wiesenthal grew to think survival was unlikely and twice attempted suicide instead of facing torture. He said the turning point was a conversation with an SS corporal toward the end of the war. The man bet Mr. Wiesenthal that no one would ever believe what had occurred in the concentration camps.

Their exchange, Mr. Wiesenthal later said, gave him the will to live through the war.

Amid triumphs and acclaim, Mr. Wiesenthal also faced controversy, rancor and setbacks. He failed to find Josef Mengele, the physician who had conducted brutal experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz. He was called a bully and a zealot by friends and relatives of Nazis he pursued.

His targets included Adolf Eichmann, one of the foremost planners of Jewish extermination; Fritz Stangl, commandant of two death camps; Gestapo officer Karl Silberbauer, who arrested Anne Frank in her Amsterdam hideout; and Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, who helped process the murder of women and children at a camp in Poland and later was found living as a housewife in Queens, N.Y.

His most celebrated early case concerned Eichmann, who had vanished after the war. He said Eichmann was the essence of the "desk murderer," the bureaucrat whose policies condemned to torture or death tens of thousands of people at a time.

In 1947, Eichmann's wife sought to have the Nazi official declared dead. Mr. Wiesenthal, who knew many SS men who remarried their own "widows," said his greatest contribution was "destroying the legend" that Eichmann had died.

By keeping the file active, he helped launch an international manhunt that resulted in Eichmann's capture by Israeli intelligence. In 1960, Mossad agents kidnapped Eichmann from a street in Buenos Aires. He stood trial in Israel and was hanged in 1962.

An early book by Mr. Wiesenthal, I Hunted Eichmann, had a more boastful title than the content inside suggested but made its author an overnight sensation after years of toiling in obscurity.

Because of Mossad secrecy over the kidnapping, Mr. Wiesenthal's role appeared magnified, and he took advantage of the publicity. This led to denunciations of Mr. Wiesenthal by a former Mossad leader - one of many enemies Mr. Wiesenthal made among leading Jewish figures who criticized his methods - but the Nazi hunter was unapologetic.

Mr. Wiesenthal often taught his lessons with an acerbic wit. Failing to sway a Jewish lawyer who persisted in defending the right of neo-Nazis to march even through a Jewish neighborhood, Mr. Wiesenthal offered a final rebuke: "A Jew may be stupid, but it's not obligatory."

Once, in West Germany, he related, he defused a harangue by a speaker who accused him of dining on Nazis for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "You are mistaken," he replied. "I don't eat pork."

Szymon Wiesenthal was born Dec. 31, 1908, in the Galician town of Buczacz, part of what is now western Ukraine. His father, a sugar wholesaler, died while fighting in World War I, and the family struggled amid competing Ukrainian, Russian and Polish forces.

Mr. Wiesenthal's wife of 67 years, Cyla, who once said that living with the Nazi hunter was like being "married to thousands, or maybe millions, of dead," died in November 2003. He is survived by their daughter Paulinka.

Mr. Wiesenthal spoke often of a dinner he had spent at the home of another survivor of the Mauthausen death camp, who had become a wealthy jeweler. The man speculated that Mr. Wiesenthal could have become a millionaire if he had gone back to architecture instead of hunting Nazis.

"When we come to the other world," Mr. Wiesenthal said he responded, "and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps, and they ask us, "What have you done?' there will be many answers.

"You will tell them, "I became a jeweler.'

"Another will say, "I smuggled coffee and American cigarettes.'

"Another will say, "I built houses.'

"But I will say, "I didn't forget you.' "

Information from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post were used in this report.

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