Simon Wiesenthal, the world’s most famous Nazi-hunter and namesake of one of the largest international Jewish human rights organizations, is retiring.

Wiesenthal, 94, who has been talking about retiring for the past few years, now wants to officially slow down, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Associate Dean in California.

“He’s been going to the office a few times a week. But he’s going to be 95 in December. When I asked him how he was feeling, he said his doctors said ‘Simon, you’re 94½ and you have every right to feel 94½.’ Considering the issues he has dealt with physically and emotionally, it’s just too much. It’s time to sit back and let others complete his work.”

Wiesenthal, who now lives in Vienna, Austria, has ferreted out about 1,100 Nazi criminals, some as close to home as Hermine Ryan, a housewife living in Queens, N.Y., who had supervised the killings of several hundred children at Majdanek. She was extradited to Germany for trial as a war criminal in 1973 and received life imprisonment.

He also helped catch the more infamous, like Adolf Eichmann, who sent millions of Jews to their deaths in concentration camps. Israeli commandos kidnapped Eichmann in his suburban Buenos Aires home in 1960 after Argentine authorities stonewalled Israel’s requests for his arrest.

“I have found the mass murderers I was looking for, and I have outlived all of them,” Wiesenthal said within the past few days to an Austrian magazine called Format. “If there’s a few I didn’t look for, they are now too old and fragile to stand trial.”

His retirement is already being felt in the Jewish community.

“The Jewish people, not only the Holocaust survivors, were thankful for his undertaking,” said Leon Schagrin, vice president of Holocaust Survivors of South Florida, and a survivor himself from Poland now living in Sunrise. “I think they’re grateful.”

Added Felix Pierson of Boynton Beach, Fla., a board member of the survivors’ group: “People got involved in their own personal lives, and he is the one dedicating himself for the cause, finding the Nazis. I respect the man. He did great work to fight anti-Semitism.”

Wiesenthal was born into a comfortable Jewish family in what is now the Ukraine.

In 1945 he was liberated from the Austrian concentration camp of Mauthausen, west of Vienna, by U.S. soldiers. Most of his family perished in the Holocaust, but he was soon reunited with his wife who managed to escape from a camp with the help of the Polish underground. Once he was well enough, he started a new career tracking down war criminals.

The future of Nazi hunting is now dubbed “Operation Last Chance” and now rests with the Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, Cooper said.

While they are chasing about 200 tips, there are a few dozen active cases, primarily of criminals residing in the former Soviet Union, mostly in Lithuania and Latvia.

Rositta Kenigsberg, executive vice president of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in North Miami, said she hopes he really never stops working.

“If you know Simon Wiesenthal, you know this kind of work never ends. It’s in his heart and soul and he’s devoted his life. He’ll continue to do what he needs to do.”

But now there’s talk about closing the Vienna office because of his retirement, Cooper said. Although his daughter and grandchildren live in Israel, he won’t leave Austria, Cooper said. “He has lived with death threats, his office is 100 yards from the site of the Gestapo headquarters in Vienna. But he understood his work was always symbolic – he never left the Holocaust.”

(c) 2003 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-04-27-03 0603EDT

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