Simon Wiesenthal’s office, two years after his death: The furnishings of his room were brought to Los Angeles; his archive conceals many unknown items which until now no one was aware of.
The iron door painted in white lacquer is still the same. Also the mailbox and the swastika that someone once carved into its surface are still there. Even the modest nameplate, “Documentation Center of the B.J.V.N.,” has remained: Only few know what the acronym, Bund jüdischer Verfolgter des Naziregimes,” conceals or that behind the door is the office of Simon Wiesenthal.
Salztorgasse 6 in the center of Vienna, 2nd Floor, Nr. 5: This very location once housed the main office of the highly feared Gestapo, which shortly before the end of the war was bombed and reduced to rubble. Today, in its place stands Leopold-Figl-Hof, a typical residential building from the 1960s. During the mid 1970s, Wiesenthal selected the site for his office.
There were the times when the journalists and camera teams shoved against each other in the narrow entryway in order to be the first to hear the sensational news from the man with a memory for detail - how, for example, at the end of 1963, Wiesenthal after years of searching was able to expose the Viennese policemen Karl Silberbauer as the man who arrested Anne Frank in Holland in 1944 and delivered her to her death. Today that is history. It’s piling up on top of the long bookshelves, and Wiesenthal’s small team of colleagues have been sifting through it for four years now. Currently, one’s about half-way through.
Only Simon Wiesenthal’s room is no longer there. His writing desk, containing each scrap of paper, the sagging couch, the wobbly Moroccan side table, the giant map, “Germany under Hitler Dictatorship,” even the wastebasket with the last packet of sour candies which he had had delivered from Meinl Supermarket – all that was declared as a museum’s piece; everything that was moveable was removed only weeks after his death on September, 2005. That room will now be reassembled and exhibited at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
Apart from putting it on display, the attempt to materialize and exhibit Simon Wiesenthal’s fight against forgetting as an object has something touching about it. The Center in Los Angeles, which Wiesenthal named after himself in 1977 and contents of which have been somewhat controversial, is collecting 35 million dollars this year in donations. He, himself, received 7,000 U.S. dollars per month to subsidize his office. It was suspended after the removal of the memorabilia, something which Wiesenthal had agreed upon.
It was painful to see it being carried away, piece for piece, said Rosa Maria Austratt, who worked together with Wiesenthal for three decades: “That was his life which was piled up high; it was his second skin.” From his estate, Wiesenthal’s daughter, Paulinka, asked only for five of his drawings of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, together with a stamp.
In his former office, he is still referred to as “the boss.” The more his name takes on a meaning of its own when becoming an international trademark, the more one is determined to continue his work. One sorts through – page for page – from what remains of the almost sixty years of work done by Simon Wiesenthal. Alone the material on NS perpetrators and NS criminals extends to 35 meters in length, excerpts of which can be found on the new homepage at: www.simon-wiesenthal-archiv.at Only recently was the police report, “In Reference to Located Jews,” added. The discovery of the Lemberger hideout in June, 1944, was made by Wiesenthal and others.
Apart from a multi-faceted picture of the search for NS perpetrators, a considerable portion of the archive offers an account of society and its reaction to the man who sent a warning with unmistakable consequences. Thus, Wiesenthal was the first to collect witnesses of the circumstances involving NS forced laborers. It fell, however, upon deaf ears. And in the summary it becomes more than clear how often he sent facts to former Director General for Public Security in Austria Robert Danzinger regarding NS suspicious activity but virtually no answer was received. There are stories taken from everyday life, such as that of a railroad employee who wrote to Wiesenthal in 1965 about being mistreated by a colleague for being a Jew. Wiesenthal took also such matters seriously and went as far as contacting the Minister of Transportation. Wiesenthal’s extensive correspondence with embassies and politicians throughout the world is widely known to this day. With the exception of letters from people who requested that the contents remain confidential, he, himself, wanted everything to be made accessible. Therefore, like Wiesenthal did in respecting certain rules, so do his colleagues when maintaining his archive.
An entirely separate chapter is dedicated to affronts which were filed away in a so-called “Meschuge box.” They are collages by Wiesenthal in SS uniform, incitements, such as “Austria should also establish a watch list for Jews,” and a letter with a piece of soap.
Author and historian Tom Segev, living in Israel, is in the process of researching the Wiesenthal phenomenon. One of his most surprising finds is that Wiesenthal was the man “who de facto forced Israel to face the Holocaust in 1949, long before most people were prepared to confront it” (Segev). Wiesenthal had informed Yad Vashem at that time in Jerusalem that he would be sending urns containing ashes and earth taken from mass graves of murdered Jews. While the “ceremony involving the acceptance of the holy shipment” (letter from Yad Vashem) was being fervently debated, Wiesenthal cabled the unmistakable instructions to Jerusalem: “See that there is a place for me and the ‘sarcophagus’ on the plane.”
Segev speaks about when he worked in Wiesenthal’s former office: “I have seen his initial sketches from the days when he was freed - emaciated like a skeleton. After having gone through many of his documents, I found a letter: “Darling, Simon, take good care of yourself….we need you. Elizabeth Taylor.” In her warm, emotionally effusive style, Taylor expressed that Wiesenthal had become someone indispensable. Tom Segev claims that he is only at the beginning of his attempt to understand the man, Simon Wiesenthal, and his impact on history.
“So that knowledge follows remembrance of the Shoah, it is imperative that a research center of international distinction - which is now in the planning - be established.” In 2002 Simon Wiesenthal explained that he wanted to leave his archives in Vienna and requested that the City of Vienna and the Republic of Austria establish a research center in his name. In summer of 2005 seven institutions, among them the Jewish Community Vienna and Vienna’s Wiesenthal Archives - whose holdings provide the basis of the new center – founded the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies under the direction of the political scientist, Anton Pelinka. Beginning in 2007, a renowned international scientific council headed by Raul Hilberg was established, and only a few days ago Federal Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, together with Vice Chancellor Wilhelm Molterer and the City of Vienna, issued a written declaration of intention to bring the project to fruition. Also, twenty-five Austrian personalities have emphasized their support in view of 2008, which is the 70th anniversary of Austria’s Anschluß by Nazi Germany and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Simon Wiesenthal on December 31, 2008.