S. Wiesenthal searches for 'witnesses' to Nazi Holocaust

The elderly woman from St. Petersburg Beach clutched an envelope tightly in her lap as she sat on the edge of a front-row seat in the auditorium and anxiously scanned the milling group of men who surrounded the podium.

She was looking for a small, elderly man, not particularly distinguished in appearance, but who can speak with an intensity of conviction that certainly must hold the attention of his enemies.

''I want to see Mr. Wiesenthal,'' she said. ''I want to tell him about the Nazi living in my condominium.''

Out of the envelope she pulled a newspaper clipping that told about a 70 -year-old St. Petersburg Beach man who had been accused of being a lieutenant in the Lithuanian auxiliary police force and assisting occupying Nazi forces in the murder of unarmed civilians.

''It's terrible,'' she said. ''He's got lots of money, and Cadillacs come and go from his condominium. He should not be able to live like that after all the people who were killed. I have to tell Mr. Wiesenthal.''

She managed to get her information to a man who was organizing Simon Wiesenthal's appearance, and he promised to pass it along to the Nazi hunter. She was not alone. Before the evening was over, five people had passed along information about Nazis to Mr. Wiesenthal.

For this woman and the others who were trying to reveal information about hiding Nazis, World War II was not over. Nor was it over for the Lithuanian immigrant who now faces deportation hearings.

And for Simon Wiesenthal, the Austrian Jew who has been hunting Nazi criminals since he was liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945, the lessons so cruelly taught by Hitler's regime should never be forgotten, lest they be repeated.

He was speaking at the University of South Florida in Tampa, far from the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps where millions of people were killed. But even in placid west-central Florida, 35 years after Hitler's death, a group calling itself the ''Sons of Hitler'' has made death threats against university professors and administrators, and it vandalized offices, cars, and buildings with swastikas and slogans.

Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States more than doubled last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith, which reported 974 cases of anti-Jewish vandalism in 31 states and the District of Columbia in 1981 .

In addition, bodily assaults and mail or telephone threats against Jews because they are Jews more than tripled to 350 cases in the US last year, the organization says.

Anti-Semitic bombings near synagogues in Antwerp and Vienna last year killed 4 people and injured more than 100 others, and a bomb exploded in front of Wiesenthal's home in Vienna last June, causing heavy damage to the building, but not hurting Mr. Wiesenthal or his wife, at home at the time.

Wiesenthal, who was surrounded by bodyguards when he spoke in Tampa, says neo-Nazi groups fester just out of sight, denying that the Holocaust ever took place and waiting for the national emergency or disaster that will alter the public psyche in their favor.

''In your country you have more than 100 groups - not big groups, 100 people, 200 people - some of them 10 times the number of people Hitler had in the beginning,'' Wiesenthal said in heavily accented English. ''They wait for a crisis, a political crisis, an economic crisis. Because in a time of crisis, democracy is in a defensive position.

''They are the ones who have the answers for the unhappy people on the street ,'' he said, ''and they hope that what happened in the time of Hitler will repeat.''

The neo-Nazi literature, printed in five languages, that is keeping the small groups alive around the world is coming from the US, he said.

''We could not find out who is paying for it,'' he said. ''It is protected by your First Amendment, even though these people are misusing your First Amendment and misusing the reputation of your country around the world. I can tell you that the German and Austrian neo-Nazis could not exist without this printed propaganda coming from your country.''

The only defense, he said, is to constantly dip into the reservoir of Nazi criminals who have been hiding since the end of World War II and bring them to trial as witnesses of the Holocaust.

''The reason for a trial is not only to punish the man and bring him to jail, '' Wiesenthal said, ''but to make a repetition of the history. Half of the population of the world today was born after the war. About 8 to 10 percent of the other half were small children by the end of the war.

''They have absolutely no personal experience with Nazism,'' he said. ''And in our time, especially in your country, we have people who deny the Holocaust. They deny the existence of the gas chambers.''

Finding witnesses has been the focus of Wiesenthal's life since, as an emaciated concentration camp survivor, he volunteered to help the US Army track down Nazi criminals in the early days after the war.

He had been an architect in Poland before the war, and after he was liberated , he said, he was told he could return to Poland and build houses again.

''I said to the people, build houses? For whom? People like me don't need houses. . . . First we will get justice, and then maybe I will build houses again.''

After 37 years, he says he is still looking for justice. Allied interest in hunting Nazi criminals faded with the beginning of the cold war in 1948. He took up the hunt on his own by opening a small Documentation Center in Austria in 1947.

But by the mid-1950s, he was receiving so little support that he closed the office and sent all his files to Israel, except one - Adolf Eichmann, the technocrat of the Holocaust who directed the deportation of Jews from Germany and Nazi-occupied countries to concentration camps.

When Israelis finally captured Mr. Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 with Wiesenthal's help, the German became the witness that rekindled interest throughout the world for hunting down Nazi criminals.

''It was good that this man was 15 years alive,'' Wiesenthal said. ''Because if he had been found immediately after the war and executed, the whole problem would have been no more.''

He said he was told that in South America people disappear every day. Why not have Eichmann killed? Why spend the millions of dollars to capture him and bring him to trial in Israel when his death sentence was practically a foregone conclusion?

''Eichmann was more a witness than a criminal,'' Wiesenthal said. ''His guilt was known before, but this historic lesson was needed for our own youth who could not understand how millions of people could be slaughtered without any resistance.

''After the trial of Eichmann, when hundreds of millions of people in the whole world had knowledge of these crimes every day in their newspapers, the press started the search for the collaborators with Eichmann and other criminals.''

Wiesenthal got the support to reopen his Documentation Center to search for more witnesses.

By the late 1950s people were already beginning to deny that the Holocaust had taken place, he said. Austrian youth disrupted the opening of a play, ''The Diary of Anne Frank,'' which was based on the book written from a diary found in an attic in Amsterdam where German Gestapo agents had arrested a Jewish family.

The youths insisted that the family had never existed and that the book was a Jewish conspiracy to put more pressure on the West German government to pay the Jews more reparations.

''One of the youths told me: 'Find the man who arrested Anne Frank. We will believe him, we will not believe you,' '' Wiesenthal said. ''It took me five years, but to find the man who arrested Anne Frank was one battle against neo-Nazi propaganda.''

But the witnesses still have to be found, he said. He has focused his attention on Dr. Joseph Mengele, who is accused of killing 150,000 children while performing experiments on them at Auschwitz. Dr. Mengele is believed to be hiding in South America.

''With his help, maybe we can ban the propaganda about the nonexistence of the gas chambers,'' Wiesenthal said, ''or that the gas chambers were only for the disinfection of clothes.''

So what if the gas chambers did or did not exist? Is that not an evil fluke of the past that should be forgotten? people ask Wiesenthal.

''The history of man is a history of crimes,'' he replies. ''I'm looking at my work as a warning for the criminals of tomorrow. . . .

''This warning is more and better than all the conventions of law,'' he said. ''The criminals of tomorrow must know they will never have rest, and we will bring them to justice even 40 years after the crime. And 10,000 miles away from the crime, they can never be safe.'

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