World famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal died early Tuesday at the age of 96 due to multiple internal organ failure at his Viennese home, the Vienna Jewish Community said.
Wiesenthal died in his sleep, according to Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
Wiesenthal was born on December 31, 1908, son of a wealthy Jewish businessman at Buczacz in Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire with a large Jewish population. He attended elementary school in Vienna and high school in Buczacz.
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When Hitler attacked Russia in 1941 Wiesenthal was among the millions of Jews forced into concentration camps. Altogether the Nazis were estimated to have exterminated 11 million civilians, including six million Jews.
He spent four and a half years during World War Two in German concentration camps, including Buchenwald in Bavaria and Mauthausen in Austria, according to published reports. He reportedly slashed his wrists in a suicide attempt during this period to avoid torture. 89 members of his own family were reportedly killed by the Nazis.
The Holocaust survivor abandoned his profession as an architectural engineer and devoted his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals and fighting anti-Semitism after World War II.
Wiesenthal was instrumental to the catch of major figures such as Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s chief henchmen in the campaign to exterminate Jews, and Franz Stangl, ex-commandant of the Treblinka death camp. He also helped track down Karl Silberbauer, who arrested 14-year-old Anne Frank in Amsterdam, and was discovered in 1963 working as a police inspector in Vienna. Then there was the capture of former commander of the Przemysl ghetto, Josef Schwammberger, in South America back in 1987.
Simon Wiesenthal was involved in the arrest of more than 1,000 Nazis. The Nazi hunter’s unwavering slogan was “justice, not revenge”.
A Jew, Wiesenthal traveled the world into his advanced years, lecturing on the Holocaust and as director of the Jewish Documentation Center collecting information on the whereabouts of the last unpunished monsters of Nazi Germany.
He reportedly told Reuters on his 75th birthday in 1983 that he could never rest until he had hunted down the last of the murdering villains of the Third Reich – “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele and former SS Colonel Walter Rauff.
Rauff died of cancer aged 77 in Chile in May 1984, but Wiesenthal continued searching for Mengele until in June of 1985 when a body exhumed in Brazil was identified to be that of the man Wiesenthal said was personally responsible for the extermination of 400,000 Jews, half of them children, as doctor at Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
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The death of the legendary head of the Jewish Documentation Center caused a wave of sadness around the world and may come to symbolize the approaching end of international efforts to bring executioners of the Holocaust to justice. Although the Israeli institute named after Wiesenthal continues to campaign for Nazi fugitives to be tracked down and prosecuted, many experts say that advanced age could dispose of the few who remain before the courts can.
“The hunt for Nazis is no longer relevant. There are no important Nazis alive any more, essentially. Any left would be too old to be of interest,” Yosef Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and former Israeli justice minister, said in a radio interview, according to Reuters.
Micha Brumlik, director of the Frankfurt-based Fritz Bauer Institute, put the number of surviving war criminals at between 400 and 500, with many living in Latin America and the Baltic states.
“The majority of these men are well over 90. I doubt whether they are still fit to stand trial,” Brumlik told Reuters.
The Jewish Community said Wiesenthal’s funeral would be in Israel on Friday. In Vienna beforehand, there would reportedly be a farewell ceremony at the Central Cemetery on Wednesday. The body of Wiesenthal would then be flown to Israel.
Black flags would be flown over Vienna City Hall for Wiesenthal, who was an honorary citizen of the capital city.
With a serious and resolute manner — and a flair for gaining attention — he was lionized in the 1989 HBO movie “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story,” based on his memoirs and starring Ben Kingsley. A character reportedly modeled on him was played by Sir Laurence Olivier in the 1978 film “The Boys from Brazil. And he also served as a consultant for the 1974 thriller, “The Odessa File.”
In 1961 Wiesenthal founded the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna which, bolstered by branches around the world and an intricate network of former concentration camp inmates, was devoted to tracking down Nazis who escaped trial.
Established in 1977, the Simon Wiesenthal Center is an international Jewish human rights organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust by fostering tolerance and understanding through community involvement, educational outreach and social action, according to its website.
In recent years Wiesenthal spoke out in favor of war crimes trials for genocide in the former Yugoslavia, and lent his name to a Holocaust study center and Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
— Compiled from wire reports
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