I Didn't Forget You
If the voices submerged in the shadows of the Holocaust could speak they would whisper of when the line separating man from beasts blurred in the atrocities the Nazis committed. Yet,despite the horrors, a love story blossomed. Simon Wiesenthal and a woman from his town shared lives which rivaled the harrowing twists of a Stephen King plot.
The stranger-than-fiction story of Cyla Muller (a distant relative of Sigmund Freud)began in 1908 in the shtetl of Buczacz, Galicia, located in the Hapsburg Empire. The town’s Jews were known as Luftmenschen-people who live on air-because their economic prospects were so dire. Growing up in a loving family, little did she envision Galicia would vanish when it became a chess game played by two of history’s most heinous dictators. Buczacz was also a hazardous place for Jews because of the Cossacks who slaked their thirst for blood-letting through pogroms.
At fifteen Cyla was studying at the Gymnasium when she first met Simon Wiesenthal and fell in love. Alison Leslie Gold recounted in Fiet’s Vase and Other Stories of Survival, “Everyone who knew them at seventeen had no doubt that the tall, dark Simon Wiesenthal and small, fair Cyla Muller-so obviously besotted with each other-would one day marry.” The young couple was distraught when Simon’s widowed mother remarried and planned to relocate to Dolina, close to the Carpathian Mountains. Simon succeeded in his plea to remain in Buczacz and boarded with the Mullers. The teenagers experienced the luftmensche of love. Although Simon was serious and studious, Cyla awakened his light-side and he entertained her with funny stories, communicated in their amalgam of Polish-Yiddish. He sketched her in pencil, capturing the image of a fair-haired girl, her face a study in melancholy. Her somber mood was the result of her brother’s immigration to Palestine and her fear she would never see him again.
A four year separation came when Simon left to pursue a degree in architecture at the Technical University in Czechoslovakia. He promised upon his return as Herr Ingenieur he would build a fine house where they would raise children. Cyla suggested they start their marriage in Palestine to be near her brother and escape the hovering anti-Semitism. Simon declined as he would not leave his mother, especially after the accidental death of his brother Hillel. When he had attained his degree he and Cyla wed at a rabbi’s house on September 9th, 1936, and moved to Lvov, Poland.
The Wiesenthals were earmarked for an unremarkable middle-class life when world events deemed otherwise: within a few years the Soviet Union overran Poland and instituted the “Red Purge” of the Jewish bourgeois. Simon saved himself and Cyla from deportation to Siberia by bribing a Russian commissar. Then the Nazis absorbed Poland into the Third Reich and rounded up the Jews. Wiesenthal watched as soldiers, swigging liquor, shot half the prisoners in his group. His life was spared when the church bells pealed and the Nazis retreated for evening mass. In the liquidation of its ghetto Cyla’s mother was shot by a Ukrainian policeman and Simon’s mother was executed at Belzec. Simon and Cyla were deported to a labor camp where they were forced to work in a nearby railway repair shop. She was ordered to polish brass; Simon was compelled to paint over the hammer and sickles emblazoned on the railroad cars with swastikas.
Fearful of transportation to the new SS concentration camps, Wiesenthal cast about for a means of saving his wife. He struck up a bargain with the Polish Underground, Armja Krajowa, (AJ;) he agreed to furnish maps the partisans needed for sabotage in return for forged documents showing Cyla was Aryan. In this fashion, the Jewish Cyla Wiesenthal became the Christian Irena Kowalska. In a wintery night a member of the AJ smuggled her out of the camp to Warsaw, where she was provided shelter by an architect in exchange for serving as a nanny. To those who questioned, she explained she was the wife of a Polish officer, prisoner of war of the Russians. Her blonde hair and gray-blue eyes, coupled with fluency in Polish, lent truth to the lie.
By June 1943 conditions deteriorated in Warsaw as the Gestapo subjected nonpermanent residents of the city to arbitrary arrests. Desperate to elude capture and to see Simon, Cyla took a train to Lvov where she hid for two days and nights in the ladies’ toilet stall. One evening, Wiesenthal was called to the camp fence and discovered Cyla on the other side. The Polish Underground helped once more and they arranged passage for her to a small apartment at 5 Topiel Street in Warsaw where she was given a bed in a kitchen which she shared with rabbits. In the meantime Simon was deported to the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Desiring death on his own terms, he slashed his wrists. The Nazi in command saved him with the words, “A Jew should never die when he wishes. Only when we wish.” Cyla was contacted by a member of the Underground who mistakenly informed her Simon had perished. Shortly afterwards she was deported, as a Pole rather than a Jew, to forced labor in a munitions plant in the Ruhr. Had she been identified as a Jew, she would have been sent to a death camp. In Mauthausen, Simon encountered an inmate from 7 Topiel Street who informed him no one had survived the street’s destruction during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Not wanting Simon to harbor fool’s hope he explained, “There is no hope. Topiel Street is one big mass grave.” Later Simon recalled, “That night I went to sleep a widower.”
Cyla was liberated by the British on April 11, 1945 and returned to Poland; a few weeks later Simon was liberated by the Americans and travelled to Austria. As soon as he had regained his health, his six foot frame under a hundred pounds, he wrote to the Red Cross in Geneva to inquire about his wife and was informed she was deceased. In a nod to fate, he was perusing the lists of survivors when he saw the name Dr. Biener, who had attended school with Simon and Cyla, was living in Kracow. He wrote the physician a letter, requesting he search for Cyla’s remains in the rubble of Topiel Street so he could arrange a proper burial. In the meantime, Cyla was also in Kracow and bumped into an acquaintance from Buczac who told her Dr. Biener was also living there, in an apartment a few streets away. The physician had just received Simon’s letter when his doorbell rang. When he saw Cyla on the other side he gasped, “But you’re dead!”
When Simon learned Cyla was alive he desired nothing more than to be Orpheus and deliver his Eurydice from the Underworld. And he knew his wife, unlike the mythological one, would never look back. Too ill to travel, he enlisted Felix Weissberg to escort his resurrected spouse. However, just before crossing from the American to the Russian zone, Weissberg, fearing interrogation by the Soviets, destroyed Cyla’s papers. When he arrived in Kracow he could not inform Cyla of what had transpired as he had inadvertently shredded her address as well. Through a whim of serendipity, a few days later Cyla saw a note posted on a Jewish Committee’s bulletin board: “Would Cyla Wiesenthal please get in touch with Felix Weissberg who will take her to her husband in Austria.” Desirous of escaping the Communists before the Iron Curtain descended, three women answered the ad, all claiming to be Mrs. Wiesenthal. Felix had no idea which one was telling the truth. After obtaining forged papers on the black market, aware he was not Solomon, he randomly chose one of the three Mrs. Wiesenthals. It turned out to be the real one and Simon and Cyla christened their reunion a miracle. Nine months later the product of that miracle was the birth of their only child, Paulinka.
Cyla wanted to put the terrible past behind and resume the life they would have led if a world war had not interfered: Simon would work as an architect and build a home where they could find the peace in the second part of their lives which had been denied them in the first. However, Simon said the old way was over-his life’s task now was to be a Nazi nemesis and bring the butchers to justice. Refusing to immigrate to America, he moved his family into a cramped three bedroom apartment on Salztorgasse No. 6 in Vienna. Cyla acquiesced, perhaps feeling, as Ilsa did in Casablanca, the cause of righteousness was more important than personal happiness. Or perhaps after losing her husband once, she was not willing to do so again. However, her one unshakable caveat was he was never to speak of the unspeakable. –If she did, like Lot’s wife, she would turn to a pillar of salt. Her husband, on the other hand, was mired in his yesteryear, and felt it his duty to be a deputy for the dead for his six million “clients,” as he called those who perished in the Shoah. Simon said of his wife’s request, “I have never discussed with her what goes on in the office. But it was tough to carry this load on your own especially in the early days.” Cyla felt she was not just married to a man, but to “thousands or maybe millions of dead.”
Despite their different ways of coping with the past, their marriage lasted for sixty-seven years, even in the light of post-war horror. Simon was the constant target of death threats, their home was bombed, Paulinka was threatened, and the Viennese postal service maintained a bulletproof room in which to examine his packages. Despite all his vicissitudes, what remained was his love for Cyla, his dignity, and his sense of humor. The latter was displayed when he was accused by a detractor of dining on Nazis for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Simon retorted, “You are mistaken. I don’t eat pork.”
Despite Cyla’s opposition of Simon’s self imposed quest to be an avenging archangel she was proud of his singular accomplishments: creating the eponymous Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance; the uncovering of Karl Silberbauer who had arrested Anne Frank which eventually led to her death; the capture of Adolf Eichmann, (main architect of genocide,); receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and film portrayals of him by Ben Kingsley and Sir Lawrence Olivier. Sadly, Cyla did not experience being Lady Wiesenthal when Simon was conferred with a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004. She had already passed away at age ninety-five. She was interred in Herzilya Cemetery, Israel, where her daughter and three children live. Upon her death Simon retired, stating his job was done.
Simon once described attending a Sabbath service with a fellow survivor who had become a wealthy jeweler. The man inquired why Wiesenthal had not resumed architecture, which would have made him rich. The self appointed justice seeker responded, “When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask us, ‘What have you done?’ there will be many answers. You will say, ‘I became a jeweler.’ Another will say, ‘I smuggled coffee and American cigarettes.’ Another will say, ‘I built houses.’ But I will say, ‘I didn’t forget you.’ The same words he had said to Cyla on their long ago rendezvous from the dead.