We have all heard of Simon Wiesenthal.The Austrian Jew survived the Holocaust and later helped hunt down thousands of Nazi war criminals. But the story of his marriage to Cyla Wiesenthal is every bit as spectacular as the story of his fight for justice.
Cyla and Simon married in 1936 and lived in the Polish city of Lvov, which is today part of Ukraine. In 1941, the Nazis arrived, and Lvov became the Jewish ghetto of Lemberg.
In October 1941, the Wiesenthals were shipped to a small labor camp, where they worked for a year. By then, the mass killing of Jews was gathering pace, and the couple knew their deportation to an extermination camp was inevitable
In late 1941, Wiesenthal and his wife were transferred to Janowska concentration camp and forced to work at the Eastern Railway Repair Works.
He painted swastikas and other inscriptions on captured Soviet railway engines, and Cyla was put to work polishing the brass and nickel. In exchange for providing details about the railways, Wiesenthal obtained false identity papers for his wife from a member of the Armia Krajowa, a Polish underground organisation. Armia Krajowa smuggled her out of the camp in early 1943 and provided her with a fake Christian identity.
Cyla was sheltered in Lublin, over 200 kilometers (120 mi) to the north. In June 1943, the Gestapo began rounding up suspicious women in the town, so Cyla traveled back to Lemberg to find Simon. After hiding for two days in a train station cloakroom, she made brief contact with him. Once again, he used his resistance contacts, this time to find her shelter in Warsaw.
In 1944, Simon tried to commit suicide. He survived, but the story lost that important detail when Armia Krajowa informed Cyla of Simon’s actions, and she believed he was dead. In the meantime, he was moved to a different camp and met a man who had lived on the same Warsaw street as Cyla. The man told Simon that every building on the road had been destroyed by Nazis using flamethrowers, with no survivors. When Simon’s camp was liberated in May 1945, he contacted the Red Cross, who confirmed his wife was dead.
Except she wasn’t. Cyla had been captured in Warsaw and sent to a camp, and the British had freed her a month before the Americans rescued Simon. Each believed the other was dead, until Cyla was reunited with a mutual acquaintance in Krakow. He was extremely surprised to see her. “I’ve just had a letter from your husband asking me to help locate your body,” the friend explained. Unfortunately, they still had a problem—Simon was in the American zone, and Cyla was in the Soviet.
Simon hired a man named Felix Weissberg to get his wife across the border. However, Weissberg was far from competent. He destroyed Cyla’s papers before getting to Krakow, where he forgot her address. He put a notice on a bulletin board: “Would Cyla Wiesenthal please get in touch with Felix Weissberg who will take her to her husband in Linz.”
When three women presented themselves, all claiming to be Cyla, Weissberg had no idea which one was telling the truth. He couldn’t smuggle three women across the border with new fake documents, so he had to guess after interviewing each one. Luckily, he got it right. The couple reunited, and they wasted no time making up for their two years apart. Their daughter was born nine months later.
(Simon Wiesenthal with his wife Cyla in Amsterdam with Queen Juliana and her Husband Prince Bernhard)