Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005)
Bringing Nazis to justice.
Reprinted with permission from The Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Simon Wiesenthal was born on December 31, 1908 in Buczacz, in what is now the Lvov Oblast section of the Ukraine. When Wiesenthal's father was killed in World War I, Mrs. Wiesenthal took her family and fled to Vienna for a brief period, returning to Buczacz when she remarried. The young Wiesenthal graduated from the Gymnasium in 1928 and applied for admission to the Polytechnic Institute in Lvov. Turned away because of quota restrictions on Jewish students, he went instead to the Technical University of Prague, from which he received his degree in architectural engineering in 1932.
In 1936, Simon married Cyla Mueller and worked in an architectural office in Lvov. Their life together was happy until 1939 when Germany and Russia signed their "non-aggression" pact and agreed to partition Poland between them; the Russian army soon occupied Lvov, and shortly afterward began the Red purge of Jewish merchants, factory owners and other professionals...
Early in 1942, the Nazi hierarchy formally decided on the "Final Solution" to the "Jewish problem" -- Annihilation. Throughout occupied Europe a terrifying genocide machine was put into operation. In August 1942, Wiesenthal's mother was sent to the Belzec death camp. By September, most of his and his wife's relatives were dead; a total of eighty-nine members of both families perished.
Because his wife's blonde hair gave her a chance of passing as an "Aryan," Wiesenthal made a deal with the Polish underground. In return for detailed charts of railroad junction points made by him for use by saboteurs, his wife was provided with false papers identifying her as "Irene Kowalska," a Pole , and spirited out of the [Ostbahn labor] camp in the autumn of 1942. She lived in Warsaw for two years and then worked in the Rhineland as a forced laborer, without her true identity ever being discovered.
With the help of the deputy director, Wiesenthal himself escaped the Ostbahn camp in October 1943, just before the Germans began liquidating all the inmates. In June 1944, he was recaptured and sent back to Janwska where he would almost certainly have been killed had the German eastern front not collapsed under the advancing Red Army. Knowing they would be sent into combat if they had no prisoners to justify their rear-echelon assignment, the SS guards at Janwska decided to keep the few remaining inmates alive. With 34 prisoners out of an original 149,000, the 200 guards joined the general retreat westward, picking up the entire population of the village of Chelmiec along the way to adjust the prisoner-guard ratio.