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Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal dies at 96

BERLIN—Simon Wiesenthal was very open about why he became a tireless Nazi-hunter: He didn't want to meet millions of Holocaust victims in the afterlife and admit he'd forgotten their suffering.

"Survival is a privilege which entails obligations," he said in the 1989 book "Justice Not Vengeance."

When he died Tuesday at 96, in his sleep at home in Vienna, friends and admirers noted that he should have had peace on that point: It was a job not only well done, but finished.

"Essentially, Nazi-hunting ends with him," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "Look, we still search for the few remaining Nazis who can be prosecuted, but just like him, the Nazi criminals are dead or dying."

The international centers bearing his name are on to contemporary evils: the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, the international spread of terrorism, the persistence of racism.

"To Simon Wiesenthal, it was all from the same pot," Hier said. "The Nazis didn't start by building concentration camps. They started with hatred. This was his fight."

Wiesenthal in an interview with The Jerusalem Post in 1994 said, "The only value of nearly five decades of my work is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow, that they will never rest."

He was widely credited with bringing Nazi crimes into the public consciousness.

"The great moral feat he accomplished does not compare to anything else in our time," said longtime friend and fellow Nazi-hunter Ralph Giordano, 82, upon learning of Wiesenthal's death. "We lost someone who cannot be replaced. He will go down in history as THE Nazi-hunter. He was a unique contemporary."

He tracked down more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals—from Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of Adolf Hitler's "final solution" (the plan for the mass extermination of Jews), to the Gestapo agent who arrested Jewish schoolgirl Anne Frank (Holocaust deniers had been claiming she and her famous diary were fiction before the arresting officer confirmed them to Wiesenthal).

Wiesenthal was born in 1908 in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire but later became Ukraine. He married Cyla Mueller in 1936. When the Nazis began their annihilation plan of Jews in 1942, she escaped by using false identity papers. Together, the couple lost 89 members of their families to Nazi killers. Cyla Wiesenthal died in 2003.

Wiesenthal himself barely survived the war, weighing less than 100 pounds when he was liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp May 5, 1945.

As soon as he could, Wiesenthal began gathering evidence of Nazi atrocities for the War Crimes Section of the U.S. Army. Late in 1945, he and his wife were reunited. Each had believed the other was dead.

Rabbi Hier said Wiesenthal would be "remembered as the conscience of the Holocaust. When the Holocaust ended in 1945 and the whole world went home to forget, he alone remained behind to remember. He did not forget."

Giordano, a German Jew and fellow Holocaust survivor whose career includes a long list of projects detailing Nazi atrocities, said it was hard to believe he could no longer pick up the phone and hear Wiesenthal's voice—or his long line of Jewish jokes.

"A man who had gone through such atrocities and yet never lost his humor, for me, this was like an achievement," he recalled. "The Nazis destroyed the human core of so many people. They never succeeded in his case."

Giordano said there was little chance his friend would be soon forgotten. Wiesenthal's work includes a 1967 memoir titled "The Murderers Among Us." He received numerous government decorations, including the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 1980. He consulted on the 1974 film "The Odessa File" and was the basis for a character in the 1978 film "The Boys from Brazil." His center won an Oscar for its documentary "Genocide."

His work also created thousands of enemies: He was constantly under death threats, his home was bombed, and the Viennese postal service maintained a bombproof room in which to examine his packages. At times, his enemies were thugs, former or neo-Nazis hoping to stay hidden.

"He was the central figure in exposing the Nazi crimes," Giordano said. "He was the object of hatred of those who didn't want to confront the past."

Shimon Samuels, the international liaison for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris, said that without Wiesenthal's efforts the Holocaust may not have become synonymous with evil.

"If he hadn't spoken up and encouraged so many others to do so, exposed the world to these events, I'm afraid there would be many more voices saying it had never happened by now," he said. "It would, sadly, be like the massacres in Cambodia and Rwanda: The media didn't record it, so it must not have happened."

Samuels said Wiesenthal's biggest regret in life was that despite the horrors of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is again on the rise in Europe.

In a 1983 interview with Penthouse magazine, he had warned against the results of such hatred: "For your benefit, learn from our tragedy. It is not a written law that the next victims must be Jews. It can also be other people. We saw it begin in Germany with Jews, but people from more than 20 other nations were also murdered."

Wolfgang Benz, a historian at the Berlin Technical University Center for Anti-Semitism Research, said others did share Wiesenthal's work. Investigators and police agencies around the world have pried into the disappearance of war criminals. But, he noted, Wiesenthal was always there, behind the others, reminding them to never rest.

"Wiesenthal was first and foremost a moral authority," Benz said. "Since 1945, he time and again held a mirror to society. His accomplishment, his significance lie in the fact that he never stopped pushing the authorities. He wanted enlightenment, not revenge. He was a warner, and he embodied the conscience that one must never forget."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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