Simon Wiesenthal, 'Conscience of the Holocaust,' Dies at 96

Wiesenthal dedicated his life to bringing Nazis to justice and fighting anti-Semitism and prejudice.

Simon Wiesenthal, the Holocaust survivor who helped track down numerous Nazi war criminals following World War II then spent the later decades of his life fighting anti-Semitism and prejudice against all people, died Tuesday. He was 96.

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.

"I think he'll be remembered as the conscience of the Holocaust. In a way he became the permanent representative of the victims of the Holocaust, determined to bring the perpetrators of the greatest crime to justice," Hier said.

Wiesenthal, who had been an architect before World War II, changed his life's mission after surviving the Holocaust by becoming a voice for the 6 million Jews who died during the onslaught.

"When history looks back I want people to know the Nazis weren't able to kill millions of people and get away with it," he once said.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said Tuesday that Wiesenthal "brought justice to those who had escaped justice."

"He acted on behalf of 6 million people who could no longer defend themselves," Regev said. "The state of Israel, the Jewish people and all those who oppose racism recognized Simon Wiesenthal's unique contribution to making our planet a better place."

Calls of sympathy poured into Wiesenthal's office in Vienna, where one of his longtime assistants, Trudi Mergili, struggled to deal with her grief.

"It was expected," she said. "But it is still so hard."

Wiesenthal's quest began after the Americans liberated the Mauthausen death camp in Austria where Wiesenthal was a prisoner in May 1945. It was his fifth death camp among the dozen Nazi camps in which he was imprisoned, and he weighed just 99 pounds (45 kilograms) when he was freed.

He said he quickly realized "there is no freedom without justice," and decided to dedicate "a few years" to seeking justice.

"It became decades," he added.

Even after reaching the age of 90, Wiesenthal continued to remind and to warn. While appalled at atrocities committed by Serbs against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in the 1990s, he said no one should confuse the tragedy there with the Holocaust.

"We are living in a time of the trivialization of the word 'Holocaust,"' he said in an interview with The Associated Press in May 1999. "What happened to the Jews cannot be compared with all the other crimes. Every Jew had a death sentence without a date."

Early life and surviving the Holocaust Wiesenthal's life spanned a violent century.

He was born on Dec. 31, 1908, to Jewish merchants at Buczacs, a small town near the present-day Ukrainian city of Lviv in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire. He studied in Prague and Warsaw and in 1932 received a degree in civil engineering.

He apprenticed as a building engineer in Russia before returning to Lviv to open an architectural office. Then the Russians and the Germans occupied Lviv and the terror began.

Wiesenthal and his wife, Cyla, managed to escape immediate execution, but were caught and deported to the Janwska concentration camp just outside Lvov, where they were assigned to the forced labor camp serving the Ostbahn Works, the repair shop for Lvov's Eastern Railroad.

Because his wife's blonde hair gave her a chance of passing as an "Aryan," Wiesenthal made a deal with the Polish underground. In return for detailed charts of railroad junction points made by him for use by saboteurs, his wife was provided with false papers identifying her as a Pole, and spirited out of the camp in 1942.

Wiesenthal himself escaped the Ostbahn camp in October 1943, just before the Germans began liquidating all the inmates, but in June 1944, he was recaptured and sent back to Janswka.

In the fall of 1944, because of the Red Army's advance, all Janwska prisoners were forcibly marched by their Nazi captors westward through Plaszow, Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald. Few inmates survived the march that ended at Mauthausen in upper Austria.

Weighing less than 100 pounds and lying helplessly in a barracks, he was liberated by an American armored unit on May 5, 1945

Bringing Nazis to justice After the war ended, Wiesenthal was reunited with his wife, Cyla, who had survived thanks to the papers given to her.

Wiesenthal began working first with the Americans and later from a cramped Vienna apartment packed floor to ceiling with documents, Wiesenthal tirelessly pursued fugitive Nazi war criminals.

He was perhaps best known for his role in tracking down Adolf Eichmann, the one-time SS leader who organized the extermination of the Jews. Eichmann was found in Argentina, abducted by Mossad agents in 1960, tried and hanged for crimes committed against the Jews.

Wiesenthal often was accused of exaggerating his role in Eichmann's capture. He did not claim sole responsibility, but said he knew by 1954 where Eichmann was.

Eichmann's capture "was a teamwork of many who did not know each other," Wiesenthal told The Associated Press in 1972. "I do not know if and to what extent reports I sent to Israel were used."

Among others Wiesenthal tracked down was Austrian policeman Karl Silberbauer, who he believed arrested the Dutch teenager Anne Frank and sent her to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she died.

Wiesenthal decided to pursue Silberbauer in 1958 after a youth told him he did not believe in Frank's existence and murder, but would if Wiesenthal could find the man who arrested her. His five-year search resulted in Silberbauer's 1963 capture.

Wiesenthal did not bring to justice one prime target - Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous "Angel of Death" of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Mengele died in South America after eluding capture for decades.

Wiesenthal's long quest for justice also stirred controversy.

Austrian Politics and later life In Austria, which took decades to acknowledge its own role in Nazi crimes, Wiesenthal was ignored and often insulted before finally being honored for his work when he was in his 80s.

In 1975, then-Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, himself a Jew, suggested Wiesenthal was part of a "certain mafia" seeking to besmirch Austria. Kreisky even claimed Wiesenthal collaborated with Nazis to survive.

Ironically, it was the furor over Kurt Waldheim, who became president in 1986 despite lying about his past as an officer in Hitler's army, that gave Wiesenthal stature in Austria.

Wiesenthal's failure to condemn Waldheim as a war criminal drew international ire and conflict with American Jewish groups.

But it made Austrians realize that the Nazi hunter did not condemn everybody who took part in the Nazi war effort.

Wiesenthal did repeatedly demand Waldheim's resignation, seeing him as a symbol of those who suppressed Austria's role as part of Hitler's German war and death machine. But he turned up no proof of widespread allegations that Waldheim was an accessory to war crimes.

He pursued his crusade of remembrance into old age with the vigor of youth, with patience and determination. But as he entered his 90s, he worried that his mission would die with him.

"I think in a way the world owes him and his memory a tremendous amount of gratitude," Hier said.

Wiesenthal had more distinguished foreign awards than any other living Austrian citizen. In 1995, the city of Vienna made him an honorary citizen. He also wrote several books, including his memoirs, "The Murderers Among Us," in 1967, and worked regularly at the small downtown office of his Jewish Documentation Center even after turning 90.

"The most important thing I have done is to fight against forgetting and to keep remembrance alive," he said in the 1999 interview with The Associated Press. "It is very important to let people know that our enemies are not forgotten."

Wiesenthal's beloved wife, Cyla, whom he married in 1936, died in November 2003.

That same year, Wiesenthal announced his retirement. "I have survived them all," Wiesenthal said. "If there were any left, they'd be too old and weak to stand trial today. My work is done."