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A fitting place for Nazi hunter's office

Simon Wiesenthal's Viennese room comes to West L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance as part of a Holocaust exhibit.

June 09, 2008|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

By the time U.S. troops liberated the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria on May 5, 1945, Simon Wiesenthal was so weak from hunger and hard labor that he collapsed at their feet.

Days later, the survivor of Buchenwald and other notorious camps found the strength to embark on what would become a lifelong quest: to bring to justice the major and minor Nazi killers who had exterminated 6 million of his fellow Jews and millions of Gypsies, Poles and other "inferior" peoples.

For nearly half a century, Wiesenthal conducted much of his sleuthing from behind a darkly stained wooden desk in a compact Vienna office. There, in his Jewish Documentation Center, he pored over SS directories, photographs, city phone books and Holocaust survivors' letters in his bid to track offenders literally to the ends of the Earth. Biographers credit him with ferreting out 1,100 war criminals.

Now the famed Nazi hunter's office has been transplanted to the Museum of Tolerance in West Los Angeles, as part of an exhibit examining the Holocaust. Museum officials say the room is just as Wiesenthal left it at his death in 2005 at 96, down to the last pipe, newspaper clipping and sunflower tchotchke.

"This is a landmark piece of living history," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "In this small office, a man untrained to be a detective or an investigator brought to justice the most destructive mass murderers in the history of human civilization."

After Wiesenthal's wife, Cyla, died in 2003, Hier and Wiesenthal began discussing the possibility of moving the office to the museum, a multimedia venue operated by the center that is designed to teach visitors about the effects of racism and prejudice. Wiesenthal bequeathed the office contents to the center.

Billionaire developer Alan I. Casden, a longtime contributor to the center who serves on its board of trustees, and his wife, Susan, donated $1 million to cover the cost of relocating the office, Hier said.

Casden said his many encounters with Wiesenthal, who had worked as an architect before the war, inspired him to fund the effort. In their first meeting, about 30 years ago, "we talked about architecture, world politics and Israel," Casden said.

During that conversation, Wiesenthal described how after the war he could not go back to designing buildings because of his determination to seek justice on behalf of Holocaust victims and to ensure that they would not be forgotten.

Susan Burden, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's chief financial officer, was dispatched to Vienna to organize the move. She painstakingly photographed every bookshelf, the desktop, the framed commendations and even the copies of newspaper clippings spread over a low, brass-topped table. She and movers spent three days packing about 1,500 books and videotapes, as well as photos, medals and a bust of Wiesenthal. Six crates of materials were shipped by air to Los Angeles, where museum archivists spent months cataloging the items.

"It was the most difficult assignment I ever had because I wanted to do it just right," Burden said. "It was emotionally tough. A lot of tears were shed."

Particularly poignant, Burden said, were the clippings and documents on the brass tabletop relating to Anne Frank, who died with her sister and mother in a concentration camp after hiding in an Amsterdam attic for two years. After neo-Nazi propagandists contended that Anne's famed diary was a hoax, Wiesenthal spent five years searching for Karl Silberbauer, thought to be the Austrian SS man who turned the Franks in. Although Silberbauer, by then a Vienna police inspector, admitted to having arrested the Franks, Austrian officials declined to prosecute him. Still, Wiesenthal felt he had avenged the Frank family.

Prominent on Wiesenthal's desk, where a beige and a red telephone seem to float like islands in a sea of paper, is a file about Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who expedited the deaths of millions of Jews in Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution." After years of research, Wiesenthal determined that Eichmann had faked his death so that his wife could receive a pension.

That knowledge contributed to Eichmann's capture by Israeli intelligence officers in Buenos Aires in 1960, an event that prompted Wiesenthal to reopen his Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna.

On the wall across from the desk is a giant map of Europe that enumerates the Nazis' victims by country: 627,000 Italians, 1.5 million French. Volumes by Aristotle and Ptolemy line the bookshelves, along with books about Vienna's Jews, German synagogues and Gestapo activities. Many of Wiesenthal's works are also there, including several translations of his 1976 book "The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness." Atop one case is a bouquet of cloth sunflowers that have accumulated years of dust -- Viennese dust, now behind a glass viewing wall in Los Angeles.

"If he were alive today and came to Los Angeles and walked into his office, he would feel right at home," Hier said. "He'd sit down at his desk and pick up the telephone."

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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