His breathing is labored, his body pained by the arthritis in his spine. And even at 90, his life is endangered. His home, once the target of a terrorist bombing, is guarded full-time by armed police. But the tall, imposing survivor remains as determined as ever to add to his roster of more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals brought to justice.
"Considering everything he's been through, he's still active," marvels Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "Upon his 90th birthday, we felt it was time for us to pause, and to say thank you."
The center's thank you begins on Sunday, with a Yom HaShoah ceremony honoring the Nazi hunter and the opening of a historic exhibit, "I Am My Brother's Keeper: The Life and Times of Simon Wiesenthal" at the center's Museum of Tolerance.
The exhibition, which features more than 200 original photos and documents, describes the survivor's childhood in Buczacz, now in the Ukraine; his marriage to Cyla Mueller and his work in an architectural office in Lvov before the war.
Viewers will learn of his experiences in camps such as Ostbahn and Janowska; his liberation at Mauthausen, when he weighed less than 100 pounds; and several never-before-seen drawings, sketched by Wiesenthal immediately after liberation, which look past the Mauthausen gates and out into the countryside.
Wiesenthal also looked to the future, but he did not forget the victims of the past. In one photograph taken just after the war, the gaunt survivor poses at a memorial service for Mauthausen victims, beside urns filled with the remains of Jews destined for reinterrment in Palestine. Not long thereafter, the still-frail Wiesenthal began gathering and preparing evidence on Nazi atrocities for the War Crimes Section of the U.S. Army.
But soon, Cooper says, "Even Jewish leaders were telling Simon it was time to forgive and forget. Simon Wiesenthal was regarded as something between Don Quixote and a fool." A startling, circa 1948 internal memo from the Joint Distribution Committee, for example, wonders about a zealot named Wiesenthal.
Undaunted, the Nazi hunter continued his tenacious crusade, painstakingly culling documents and records, listening to survivors' accounts, piecing together obscure, incomplete, sometimes seemingly irrelevant data. His efforts were rewarded when Israeli agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires and brought him to Israel, where he was tried and executed in 1961. The exhibit includes the congratulatory telegram Yad Vashem sent Wiesenthal immediately after Eichmann's arrest.
Wiesenthal went on to track down notorious war criminals such as Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer who had arrested Anne Frank, and Hermine Ryan (nee Braunsteiner), the Queens, N.Y., housewife who had supervised the murder of several hundred children in Majdanek. Awards and accolades finally came Wiesenthal's way. But he remained nonplused by all the approval.
When a Museum of Tolerance consultant recently visited him to obtain artifacts for the exhibit, for instance, he just shrugged and pulled a dusty suitcase out from under his bed, filled with some 200 medals.
The exhibit also features seldom-seen photos from Wiesenthal's private collection and other sources: One shows the shocked survivor, then around 80, just after his home was bombed by neo-Nazis; another depicts a stunned Wiesenthal seconds after he was slapped by a war criminal during the man's trial.
How did Wiesenthal obtain his most important tips about the whereabouts of former Nazis? "From former Nazis who were jealous of other former Nazis," says center Dean Rabbi Marvin Hier, who will reminisce about Wiesenthal during the center's Yom HaShoah commemoration.
Cooper, for his part, will speak of the old siddur that the survivor keeps at his bedside. When the rabbi once asked Wiesenthal about the prayer book, the survivor replied that he had found it one snowy day in winter 1946, when he had accompanied a Jewish U.S. Army chaplain to a castle crammed with stolen Jewish artifacts. "Simon said that when they opened the door, there was this stunned silence, because the rooms were stacked floor to ceiling with the remnants of Europe's Jews," Cooper says. "After a few minutes, Simon heard a thud on the floor above him, and when he ran upstairs, he saw that the chaplain had fainted, clutching a siddur."
Inside the prayer book, an inscription stated that the Nazi murders were near; the author begged the reader to remember Europe's Jews and to avenge Jewish blood. The inscription, eerily, had been written by the chaplain's sister. And when the rabbi died 15 years later, his family sent Wiesenthal the siddur.
The prayer book, Cooper says, speaks volumes about Wiesenthal's motivation. "He never left Vienna, because he would not leave the dead," Cooper says. "He never left the trenches."
The exhibit's opening will follow the center's Yom HaShoah commemoration, April 11, 10:30 a.m. For more information, call (310) 553-8403.
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