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Honoring Nazi Hunter Wiesenthal's Life and Work


Simon Wiesenthal died today at the age of 96. He dedicated his life to searching for Nazi fugitives, helping to bring the perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.


Simon Wiesenthal died in his sleep at his home in Vienna. His career began in 1945 after he survived a series of Nazi concentration camps. He began to pursue his former persecutors, working first with American occupation forces and later on his own.

(Soundbite of 1990 interview)

Mr. SIMON WIESENTHAL: I believed that somebody who was involved in a genocide, or a holocaust, has loose the right to die in peace. This fact is also a part of a warning for the murderers of tomorrow that they will never rest.

FLINTOFF: That was Wiesenthal speaking to NPR in 1990.

When Wiesenthal took up his work, patiently assembling documents and tracking the movements of war criminals, it wasn't a popular thing to do. Michael Birnbaum is a professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He says that for the Allies, the desire for justice soon gave way to political considerations.

Professor MICHAEL BIRNBAUM (University of Judaism): The United States--after being determined for de-Nazification, the United States then became determined to win the allegiance of the German people for the Cold War. So bringing the former people to trial became less interesting and less important.

FLINTOFF: Wiesenthal said that he himself lost 89 relatives in the Holocaust, but he insisted that what he sought was not vengeance but justice. Deborah Lipstadt is a professor of Jewish studies at Emory University. She says he was always willing to accept the judgment of the law, even in the case of a man who'd lived many years as an American citizen but was accused of being a notorious prison camp guard.

Professor DEBORAH LIPSTADT (Emory University): I remember after the John Demjanjuk trial in Israel, the man who had been accused of being Ivan the Terrible--when the Israeli court ruled that there was no proof that he was indeed Ivan the Terrible, Wiesenthal immediately said, `Let him go home and go back to the United States, and leave him alone.'

FLINTOFF: Wiesenthal helped track down more than 1,000 former Nazis who were implicated in the Holocaust. His most famous case was that of Adolf Eichmann, who had organized the transportation and mass killings of Jews. He was often accused of exaggerating his role in Eichmann's capture when that was actually accomplished by the Israeli intelligence service. Lipstadt said his main contribution came much earlier.

Prof. LIPSTADT: And he had a role in preventing Eichmann from being declared dead in the late '40s, when his wife clearly knew he was very much alive and well.

FLINTOFF: In another famous case, Wiesenthal refused to condemn former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim of war crimes based on Waldheim's past as an officer in Hitler's army. He later told NPR that there was no proof that Waldheim was an accessory to crimes.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. WIESENTHAL: So to act in a panic is never good. We should be realistic and not always emotional.

FLINTOFF: Wiesenthal is remembered by many for a book he wrote, "The Sunflower," in which he posed the question of whether a Nazi could be forgiven his crimes if he showed true remorse and repentance. He didn't answer that question, but asked prominent thinkers to respond to the idea that there could be crimes that are without forgiveness. Michael Birnbaum says Wiesenthal made himself a symbol of the demand for justice and remembrance.

Prof. BIRNBAUM: What he wanted to end his days saying and being is, `I haven't forgotten. That memory has remained with me. I have been faithful.' And he was.

FLINTOFF: A memorial service for Simon Wiesenthal will be held tomorrow in Vienna. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.