Stalking the Nazis

ANN WALMSLEY December 9 1985

Stalking the Nazis

ANN WALMSLEY December 9 1985

Stalking the Nazis


The man in the old-fashioned suit stolidly eating a dish of liver and potatoes in New York’s Doral Park Hotel restaurant looked more like a retired university professor than the world’s most famous and tireless Nazi hunter. As he ate, Simon Wiesenthal, 76, astonished his luncheon companions—two lawyers from Canada’s 10-month-old Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals—with his memory of detailed evidence against the people he has pursued. The meeting last month with lawyers Michael Meighen and Yves Fortier had to take place in New York City: Wiesenthal has boycotted Canada for a decade because Ottawa has not prosecuted Nazi war criminals. And although the man with the intense brown eyes and deeply lined face will not soften his stand, he did consent to provide the commission with information on more than 200 suspected war criminals living in Canada. Said chief commissioner Justice Jules Deschênes: “It is hard to conceive of a commission of inquiry into Nazi war criminals in Canada

which did not talk to Wiesenthal.” Despite his age, Wiesenthal’s reputation as a successful Nazi stalker remains undiminished. For the past 40 years he has helped to track down and prosecute more than 1,100 war criminals, most notably Adolf Eichmann, a key author of Germany’s “Final Solu-

‘We thought the Nazis were just a passing fad. When we woke up to what it reallg was, it was too latey

tion” policy for exterminating the Jews. And after keeping alive the hunt in South and Central America for Joseph Mengele, known as the “doctor of death” at the Auschwitz concentration camp, Wiesenthal is now convinced that bones discovered last June in Brazil are those of Mengele, his most wanted target. In October he was hon-

ored for the first time in Austria when Vienna gave him the Silver Medal of Honor. As well, he has been nominated for the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

But the belated honors have not lessened his frustrations. As his quarries die off, Wiesenthal says that he is painfully resigned to the fact that the protracted process of bringing them to trial is increasingly fruitless. As a result, Wiesenthal is spending most of his time educating the young and combatting neo-Nazi movements. During a 20-day lecture tour of U.S. universities last month, Wiesenthal proved that he inspires the young as effectively as he tracks Nazis. Said John Heinz, 21, an economics student at Indiana University in Bloomington: “People had a hard time believing he has devoted his entire life to pursuing these people. How does someone live like this?”

The answer lies in his history. Born in the Austro-Hungarian city of Buchach in 1908, the son of a commodity wholesaler, he has lived with persecution all his life. At the age of 12, he was wounded in an unprovoked attack from a Ukrainian cavalry officer who cut the boy’s leg with a sabre. Later, quota restrictions against Jews barred him from studying architecture at the Polytechnic Institute in Lvov, a city in the Ukraine. After studying in Prague he returned to Lvov in 1936, opened an architectural practice and married Cyla Müller, a distant relative of Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

Just days after Hitler invaded Russia, in 1941, a cadre of Nazi-trained Ukrainian auxiliary troops arrested him in Lvov. For the next four years he struggled to survive in a succession of concentration camps, uncertain whether his wife was alive. Sketches he made as an inmate reveal tortured images of Nazi skulls with gaping mouths which devour trainloads of doomed Jews. In desperation he twice attempted suicide—first by slashing his wrists, then by hanging. When U.S. soldiers liberated him from the Austrian camp of Mauthausen in 1945, he was 37 years old and weighed 90 lb.

Initially, he recalls being overwhelmed with a desire for revenge. Said Wiesenthal: “I had lost my whole family.” But Cyla was alive, and after she was liberated from a death camp in Germany the couple was reunited—the only two out of 91 family members to survive. Instead of returning to architectural practice, Wiesenthal joined the U.S. Army’s war crimes unit. His first assignment was to arrest an SS officer who lived in a third-storey apartment. Wiesenthal was still so weak that the man he arrested had to help him down the stairs.

The birth of his daughter, Pauline, in 1947 softened Wiesenthal’s bitter-

ness. When a colleague who had access to Eichmann’s children offered to kill them, Wiesenthal protested: “In what way would you be different from the Nazis? Morality must be on our side.”

Contrary to popular perception, Wiesenthal does not track his victims across the globe; he operates from his Vienna office through a sophisticated web of informers. Only regular visitors to his Jewish Documentation Center can identify the main-floor doorbell because the nameplate has been repeatedly vandalized. Five storeys up, the modest, three-room office is filled with newspapers. Wiesenthal’s armchair is surrounded by shelves of carefully catalogued books. On one wall a giant map pinpoints the Nazi death camps, with the number of people who died in each. The remaining wall space is cluttered with plaques and other honors from around the world.

Even now, Wiesenthal’s life in Vienna is uneasy. In his relentless chase of Nazi criminals he has himself become hunted. At one time, a branch of the World Union of National Socialists—a racist association based in Arlington, Va.—offered a $40,000 reward for Wiesenthal’s life. Telephone threats to his office and his home are frequent; and two years ago a bomb set by local neoNazis blew in the front door of his redbrick house in an upper-middle-class Viennese suburb.

Despite those perils, Wiesenthal’s personal security is surprisingly lax. His house is protected by security devices and a patrolling Vienna policeman. His office contains a peephole to the corridor and a video surveillance system, but the policeman stationed outside the office door frequently can be seen reading a book. As well, Wiesenthal has no bodyguard and drives himself to work in his 1977 Peugeot every day. Still, he carries a gun at all times. But, he said, “if I worried about being shot, I would not be able to live. When my time has come, it has come.”

Wiesenthal is not even comfortable with his compatriots in Vienna’s 5,000strong Jewish community, which largely supports the Socialist Party of former chancellor Bruno Kreisky. Since 1970 Wiesenthal has irritated the community by attacking Kreisky for his pro-Palestinian policies.

Wiesenthal’s only refuge from such conflicts, and the painful memories that still give him occasional insomnia, is his family and his three grandchildren in Israel. But last year when Cyla begged him to abandon his work and lead a normal life he says that he told her: “I cannot stop—I would feel like a traitor. Sometimes she must feel, T am not married to a husband—I am married to millions of dead people.’ ”

Characteristic of his inability to

compromise is his stand on Canada. He insists that his Canadian boycott will continue until Solicitor General Perrin Beatty begins to act against several hundred former Ukrainian Nazis who allegedly emigrated to Canada before 1953. Last month The Toronto Star published information from a previously secret document which revealed that in 1966 RCMP officers confirmed that 11 suspected war criminals identified by Wiesenthal were, indeed, Canadian citizens. So far, Canada’s only firm action was the 1982 extradition of Albert Helmut Rauca, a man charged with the deaths of 11,584 Lithuanian Jews. Said Wiesenthal: “I am disappointed about the Canadians. I expected better.”

Subsidized by the hundreds of thousands of dollars of annual donations for his cause that pour in from around the globe, the small, balding man will not call off his hunt. Wiesenthal told Maclean's: “Forgiveness is a personal matter. You have the right to forgive what has been done to you personally. You do not have the right to forgive what has been done to others.” Clearly, Wiesenthal is determined to do whatever he can to insure that the Holocaust never happens again.