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Cyla Wiesenthal, 95; Holocaust Survivor, Wife of Nazi Hunter

November 12, 2003|From Staff and Wire Reports

Cyla Wiesenthal, the wife of famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, has died, the chief rabbi in Vienna said Tuesday. She was 95.

Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg told the Austria Press Agency that Cyla Wiesenthal died Monday. The cause of death was not reported.

Born Cyla Mueller in 1908, she and her future husband met as teenagers while attending secondary school in Buczacz, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia but is now in Ukraine. They were married in 1936.

"Everyone who knew them at 17 had no doubt that the tall, dark Simon Wiesenthal and small, fair Cyla Mueller -- so obviously besotted with each other -- would one day marry," Alison Leslie Gold wrote in "Fiet's Vase and Other Stories of Survival: Europe 1939-1945," which was published this year.

The couple settled in Lvov, then part of Poland but now in Ukraine. In 1941, the Germans renamed the town Lemberg and forced the Wiesenthals and other Jews to move into a ghetto, according to Gold.

"In fall of 1941, they were abruptly separated -- without time for a real parting -- and forced onto separate trucks, he with men, she with women," Gold wrote. They were deported to a newly built concentration camp -- Janowska -- north of the city.

They were later transferred to a forced-labor camp in the same city, according to a Web page posted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

But as time went by, Wiesenthal, who was an engineer, realized that the Germans were targeting women and children, so he made plans to get his wife out. In exchange for maps and plans needed to blow up railroad yards and junctions, Gold said, Wiesenthal was able to obtain forged papers for Cyla, who was given a new identity as a Polish woman. She moved to Lublin and later to Warsaw.

She lived under the name Irena Kowalska in Warsaw for two years and later worked in Germany's Rhineland region as a forced laborer without her true identity being discovered. Her blond hair helped her pass as a non-Jewish Pole.

She was eventually shipped to a labor camp in Solingen, Germany, which the British liberated in April 1945. Wiesenthal ended up in Austria's Mauthausen concentration camp, which the Americans freed in May 1945.

But by then, each had been told by friends that the other was dead. "I had no hope my wife was alive," Wiesenthal told Gold. "When I thought of her, I thought of her body lying under a heap of rubble and I wondered whether they had found the bodies and buried her."

It was at that point that Wiesenthal began gathering information about Nazi war crimes. Meanwhile, his wife was finding her way back to Lvov.

It was only through a series of coincidences that the two discovered that both were alive, and were reunited in Linz, Austria. Both called the reunion a miracle.

Gold said that after the war, Wiesenthal "has been willing to tell and retell his own wartime experience," but Cyla Wiesenthal "has generally refused to speak about what she considers the unspeakable." Between the two, they had lost 89 relatives in the Holocaust.

The Wiesenthals settled in Vienna and had lived in the same apartment since after the war. In 1946, they had a daughter, Pauline.

Simon Wiesenthal, who turns 95 on Dec. 31, brought about 1,100 Nazi war criminals to justice during his decades of tracking them.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center was established in 1977 to preserve the memory of the Holocaust by fostering tolerance and understanding.

Cyla Wiesenthal will be buried in a private ceremony today in Vienna, the Austria Press Agency reported.

In addition to her husband, she is survived her daughter, who lives in Israel.

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