Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal dies aged 96

Austria: World leaders have paid tribute to Nazi- hunter Simon Wiesenthal as "the voice of conscience of the Holocaust" following…

Austria: World leaders have paid tribute to Nazi- hunter Simon Wiesenthal as "the voice of conscience of the Holocaust" following his death in Vienna yesterday morning, aged 96.

Wiesenthal trained as an architect but, after surviving the Holocaust in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, devoted his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals and fighting anti-Semitism.

"He became the permanent representative of the victims, determined to bring the perpetrators of history's greatest crime to justice," said Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles in a statement.

Israeli president Moshe Katsav called Wiesenthal the embodiment of human decency and "the greatest fighter of our generation".


President Horst Köhler of Germany praised Wiesenthal and his work that "made it easier for Germany to look to the future". President Mary McAleese called Wiesenthal "a man of great courage and conviction".

Wiesenthal was born on December 31st, 1908, in the town of Buczacz, now in Ukraine, in what was then the AustroHungarian Empire. His father died in the first World War, and his stepfather was imprisoned and died in prison after a Soviet purge of Jewish businessmen. His mother was killed in the Belzec camp in August 1942 followed by more than 80 other relatives.

Wiesenthal and his wife, Cyla, whom he married in 1936, were imprisoned in 1941, but she escaped to Warsaw with fake papers. He was moved from camp to camp, 13 in all, and weighed just 45kg when American soldiers arrived to liberate Mauthausen on May 5th, 1945.

Months later he was reunited with his wife after each had believed the other dead.

Wiesenthal said he began memorising perpetrators' names while still imprisoned, but it was his job at the US army war crimes office that began his six-decade hunt. He opened the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in 1961, financed by donations from around the world, and helped to bring more than 1,000 war criminals to justice.

Wiesenthal was a controversial figure, and critics accused him of sometimes exaggerating his involvement in the capture of prominent Nazis, such as Adolf Eichmann, who escaped Berlin in 1945. Wiesenthal had tracked Eichmann down to Buenos Aires, where Mossad snatched him in May 1960. But the crucial information is likely to have come from another Holocaust survivor, Lothar Hermann, whose daughter befriended Eichmann's eldest son, Klaus.

Wiesenthal courted controversy during the dispute over Kurt Waldheim, the former UN secretary general who became president of Austria in 1986 despite lying about his past as an officer in Hitler's army.

Wiesenthal's investigation suggested Waldheim was aware of but not involved in war crimes, and Wiesenthal was criticised by the World Jewish Congress for refusing to condemn the politician.

Wiesenthal said he found his calling in 1944 when an SS officer asked him what he would tell the world if he survived. When Wiesenthal said he would tell the truth, the officer replied that no one would believe him that anyone could be so brutal.

"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 said. "When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask us: 'What have you done?', there will be many answers. I will say, 'I didn't forget you'."

Wiesenthal's targets: Among the 1,100 ex-Nazis successfully brought to justice through the endeavours of Simon Wiesenthal and his centre was Adolf Eichmann, the man Hitler entrusted with the extermination of the Jews.

Eichmann was found in Argentina and kidnapped by the Israeli secret service, Mossad. He was brought to Israel, tried and hanged in 1961, the only person executed by Israel. The former commander of both Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps, Franz Stangl, a former Nazi police officer, had supervised the murder of up to 900,000. In 1948 he escaped to Syria and then Brazil, was arrested in 1967, tried and sentenced to life.

Dinko Sakic, the notorious commander of a Croatian camp, was extradited from Argentina and convicted of being responsible for the deaths of 85,000.

On the other hand, the "Angel of Death", Josef Mengele, a doctor who performed experiments on thousands of prisoners at Auschwitz, was high on the wanted list but escaped to South America and died at liberty in Brazil in 1979.