Simon Wiesenthal, who tracked down Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and has earned the reputation as the world’s foremost Nazi hunter, doesn’t seem the shy and retiring type.
But he retires frequently.
The 94-year-old Holocaust survivor, who told a British newspaper two years ago that he was stepping down from his work at his Documentation Center in Vienna, was quoted by an Austrian magazine last week as saying again that his work is done.
"I found the mass murderers I was looking for, and I have outlived all of them," he said in an interview with Format. "If there’s a few I didn’t look for, they are now too old and fragile to stand trial."
To Efraim Zuroff, who has inherited Wiesenthal’s mantle as a worldwide pursuer of accused Nazi war criminals and who heads the Jerusalem office of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, the legend’s latest retirement is "serious only in a symbolic sense.
"For the last 15 years or so it is other individuals who have been doing the practical work of bringing Nazis to justice," Zuroff said. These individuals include Zuroff in Israel and Beate and Serge Klarsfeld in Paris as well as prosecuting agencies in the countries where Nazis and their collaborators committed their crimes, where they found refuge afterwards.
The Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations and its director, Eli Rosenbaum, say claims, in Wiesenthal’s name, that there is no work left for people who find and bring Nazis to justice "are ludicrous."
"We filed a record number of cases last year," Rosenbaum says. The current cases are usually middle- or low-ranking officers, rather than the high-profile architects of the Nazis’ genocide policies.
Wiesenthal, Rosenbaum says, "retired" (from day-to-day involvement in tracking down Nazis) "years ago."
"He retired once, in the ’50’s, when he thought the subject [of still-at-large war criminals] was over," Zuroff says. "He shipped his files to Yad Vashem. He kept only one file: the Eichmann file."
After finding the coordinator of the Final Solution, who was brought to Israel, tried and hanged, Wiesenthal reopened his office, helping to find more than 3,000 former Nazis over the next several decades.
Now he spends his time computerizing his records.
"He continues to come to his office every day," Zuroff says. "His health is reasonable for a man who’s 94 and a half."
Zuroff, a native New Yorker, has encouraged the governments of at least two dozen countries to prosecute Nazis in their midst. And his works goes on, he says, despite the latest retirement announcement of the man for whom the organization where he works is named.
"There are," he says, "still hundreds if not thousands of alleged persons at large who participated in the persecution of Jews."