"The tracking down of Nazi criminals is, in point of fact, Wiesenthal’s lesser merit; a more important function, for at least the past thirty years, has been the fact that his persistent writing of letters has prevented Austrian and German authorities from allowing the prosecution of Nazi criminals to be quietly shelved."
(Peter Michael Lingens, former staff member of the Documentation Center. “In Lieu of a Self-Portrait”. In Simon Wiesenthal: Justice Not Vengeance. New York: George Weidenfeld, 1989. p. 19.)
After a period of close cooperation with the United States Army in the years 1945 and 1946, Simon Wiesenthal had to acknowledge that interest in denazification on the part of the allied occupying forces was generally dwindling. He therefore terminated his work for the U.S. Army’s Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC), and in 1947 opened the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz, in order to continue his search for Nazi perpetrators. Together with thirty volunteers, he collected witness testimonies - at first in the form of simple questionnaires passed out in the DP (displaced persons) camps – and, in cooperation with international documentation centers, police and court authorities, evaluated information about suspected individuals. Numerous files and index card catalogues on Nazi criminals and crime complexes were compiled.
The Documentation Center was housed in a tiny office, always suffered from a shortage of funds, and depended on the work of numerous unpaid volunteers. Modest office operations were kept up solely through small donations and the use of private funds from Wiesenthal’s journalistic activities.
When the Cold War had gained international political priority and there was no longer any interest in pursuing Nazi criminals, Wiesenthal decided to close his Linz office in 1954 and turn over his collected records to the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem; these consisted of documents and catalogue cards about Nazi crimes and criminals and the organization of the “final solution”, taking up about ten meters of shelves. An exact listing of the categories of documents in the extensive collection was published in the Yad Vashem Bulletin, No. 1, of April 1957. (The Wiesenthal Collection, Yad Vashem Bulletin) The only file he withheld was that on Adolf Eichmann, the former head of the “Central Office for Jewish Emigration”.
Encouraged by the fact that Eichmann had been made to stand trial in Israel, Simon Wiesenthal again opened an office after his move to Vienna. This was at first accommodated on the premises of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG), Vienna’s Jewish Community. Serious differences with the IKG’s approach to protecting the interests of the entire Jewish community, however, caused Wiesenthal to establish the Dokumentationszentrum des Bundes Jüdischer Verfolgter des Naziregime (B.J.V.N.), the Documentation Center of the Association of Jewish Victims of the Nazi Regime, where he could continue his work on an independent basis. Housed in a small, sparsely furnished and barely heatable office in downtown Vienna, on Rudolfsplatz 7,
this second Documentation Center was financed solely from private
“It was like a letter-box: queries would come in from newspapers; strangers would write in, if they thought they had found a suspect; others would send eyewitness accounts of their experiences. People wrote to Wiesenthal because they knew his name, or because they trusted him more than public institutions. If anything seemed important, he would forward it to Yad Vashem or to Ludwigsburg [where Germany had established its Central Office of Länder Justice Departments]. At other times, he would write to contacts, whose names he never divulged to us, to check the bona fides of the person who had sent him information..” (Peter Michael Lingens. In Hella Pick. Simon Wiesenthal. A Life in Search of Justice. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996. p. 169.)
Simon Wiesenthal also focused attention on the issue of aryanization (the National-Socialist term for the elimination of Jews from professional and economic life and the forced expropriation of Jewish property). His early efforts to obtain compensation for slave labor failed, because Austrians and their government at that time preferred to see and present their country as the first victim of National Socialism; thus they categorically rejected the idea of financial reparation for Jews.
When, in 1965, the statute of limitations for Nazi crimes was to take effect in Austria and Germany, the Documentation Center initiated a campaign to try to prevent this pending end to the prosecution of Nazi criminals. Hundreds of prominent personalities in both countries were mobilized to speak out for the abolition of the statute of limitations; their statements were presented to the German and shortly afterward to the Austrian governments, thereby contributing significantly to the abrogation of the statute of limitations for Nazi crimes in Austria and to its suspension in Germany. In 1979, a worldwide postcard campaign organized by the Documentation Center in cooperation with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles also induced Germany to finally abolish the statute of limitations for Nazi crimes.
In 1975, the Documentation Center moved to its present location, into a building that stands on the site of the former Hotel Metropol, which was used by the Nazis as the Vienna headquarters of the Gestapo. Conflicts over Austrian domestic policy, based on the issue of former Nazis holding public positions and on the general attitude of the government and segments of the population toward National Socialism, overshadowed and hampered Wiesenthal’s work particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1998, a symposium in Vienna, held in honor of Wiesenthal’s 90th birthday, focused on Austria’s handling of its Nazi past and underlined Wiesenthal’s role as “a positive disruptive factor and agitator who disturbed the routine of Austrian politics”.
Simon Wiesenthal remained at work in the Documentation Center until the age of 95. The small staff of assistants, which supported him until the end, is still operating in compliance with his directives. Because Wiesenthal was aware that his primary work, the active search for Nazi criminals – most of whom were no longer alive – was drawing to a close, the emphasis of work at the Documentation Center during the late 1990s gradually shifted to the systematic archiving of the accumulated files. The preservation and the accessibility for research of the records documenting his decade-long efforts to re-establish justice in the aftermath of the Holocaust was a matter of special concern to him.
Connected with this was his desire to keep the archive in Austria and to ensure the utilization of its holdings there. When Vienna's Jewish Community together with a number of other prominent historical institutions took the initiative in 2002 to establish an international Shoah research center in Vienna, Wiesenthal was glad to participate in the efforts toward its realization. This Vienna Wiesenthal Institute (VWI), as it has come to be called, will be dedicated to research, documentation and information on issues regarding anti-Semitism, racism and the Holocaust. The Documentation Center/(Simon Wiesenthal Archive will be a central but independent part of the VWI, and its holding will be brought together in one location with those of the Archive of the Jewish Community.
For recent developments of the VWI, see: http://www.vwi.ac.at