Arago: Exhibits

UP

A Lifelong Quest for Justice

Simon Wiesenthal Collection auction catalog cover, 2006

Auction catalog for the sale of the Simon Wiesenthal stamp collection held in Germany in 2006, courtesy of the Heinrich Koehler auction firm

Simon Wiesenthal was born in 1908 in Buczacz, a largely Jewish town in eastern Austria-Hungary that later became part of Poland. (Today, it is Buchach, Ukraine.) By 1939, he was an architectural engineer in nearby Lwów, married to his long-time fiancée, Cyla. Then, on September 1, Germany invaded Poland, triggering the start of World War II. The Soviet army invaded from the east two weeks later.

Germany and the Soviets quickly divided Poland, with the Soviet Union controlling the eastern portion where the Wiesenthals lived. Under Soviet rule, life was dangerous for Jews in Lwów; many were sent to Siberia and later died. The situation worsened in 1941, when Germany seized eastern Poland. Newly arriving troops killed at least 6,000 of the city's remaining Jewish residents. German administrators later shipped many to concentration camps as part of Hitler's Final Solution -- the murder of five to six million European Jews.

At different times, Wiesenthal was alternately a forced laborer at a railyard and a prisoner at the Janowska concentration camp. Near the end of the war, guards marched him and others from Janowska to different camps, ending at Mauthausen-Gusen in Austria. He weighed 97 pounds when American forces liberated the camp in May 1945. He and Cyla had each thought that the other was dead. Both survived, but 89 of their relatives died. They had their only child, Paulinka, in 1946.

After the war, Wiesenthal worked for the U.S. Army War Crimes Office investigating Nazi atrocities, then formed a private center for the same purpose. That center closed in 1954 for lack of funds, but he opened another in Vienna in the early 1960s. From this base, Wiesenthal pursued hundreds of Nazi fugitives for four more decades.

In 2003, he finally retired. "I found the mass murderers I was looking for," he said, "and I have outlived them all. If there are a few I didn’t look for, they are now too old and fragile to stand trial. My work is done." Simon Wiesenthal died at age 96 in September 2005.