Simon Wiesenthal, the Holocaust survivor who helped track down numerous Nazi war criminals following World War II, then spent the later decades of his life fighting anti-Semitism and prejudice against all people, died yesterday. He was 96.
Wiesenthal died in his sleep at his home in Vienna, according to Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
"I think he'll be remembered as the conscience of the Holocaust. In a way he became the permanent representative of the victims of the Holocaust, determined to bring the perpetrators of the greatest crime to justice," Hier said.
Wiesenthal, who had been an architect before World War II, changed his life's mission after the war, dedicating himself to trying to track down Nazi war criminals and to being a voice for the 6 million Jews who died during the onslaught. He himself lost 89 relatives in the Holocaust.
Wiesenthal spent more than 50 years hunting Nazi war criminals, speaking out against neo-Nazism and racism, and remembering the Jewish experience as a lesson for humanity. Through his work, he said, some 1,100 Nazi war criminals were brought to justice.
"When history looks back I want people to know the Nazis weren't able to kill millions of people and get away with it," he once said.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said yesterday that Wiesenthal "brought justice to those who had escaped justice."
"He acted on behalf of 6 million people who could no longer defend themselves," Regev said. "The state of Israel, the Jewish people and all those who oppose racism recognized Simon Wiesenthal's unique contribution to making our planet a better place."
Calls of sympathy poured into Wiesenthal's office in Vienna, where one of his longtime assistants, Trudi Mergili, struggled to deal with her grief.
"It was expected," she said. "But it is still so hard."
Wiesenthal's quest began after US forces liberated the Mauthausen death camp in Austria where Wiesenthal was a prisoner in May 1945. It was his fifth death camp among the dozen Nazi camps in which he was imprisoned, and he weighed just 45kg when he was freed. He said he quickly realized "there is no freedom without justice," and decided to dedicate "a few years" to seeking justice.
"It became decades," he added.
Even after reaching the age of 90, Wiesenthal continued to remind and to warn. While appalled at atrocities committed by Serbs against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in the 1990s, he said no one should confuse the tragedy there with the Holocaust.
"We are living in a time of the trivialization of the word `Holocaust,'" he said in May 1999. "What happened to the Jews cannot be compared with all the other crimes. Every Jew had a death sentence without a date."
Wiesenthal was born on Dec. 31, 1908, to Jewish merchants at Buczacs, a small town near the present-day Ukrainian city of Lviv in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire.
After the war ended, working first with the Americans and later from a cramped Vienna apartment packed floor to ceiling with documents, Wiesenthal tirelessly pursued fugitive Nazi war criminals.
He was perhaps best known for his role in tracking down Adolf Eichmann, the one-time SS leader who organized the extermination of the Jews. Eichmann was found in Argentina, abducted by Israeli agents in 1960, tried and hanged for crimes committed against the Jews.