On Location in Budapest, Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal Relives the Horrors of His Past

updated 08/01/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/01/1988 01:00AM

Simon Wiesenthal can hardly believe his eyes. The horror seems to be happening all over again: He's being marched at gunpoint to the edge of a ditch with dozens of other prisoners. Suddenly, Wiesenthal is pulled out of line—the Nazis need him to paint a sign celebrating Hitler's birthday. He is saved, but as he's led away he hears the gunfire, the screams of the dying. As Wiesenthal witnesses the massacre, all the old feelings come flooding back. "I think about those who did not survive," he says softly. "I feel guilty to be alive."

The vision is neither dream nor hallucination. It is a scene from his life, being filmed for Murderers Among Us, a TV movie based on the 79-year-old Wiesenthal's autobiography. The famed Polish-born Nazi hunter, a consultant on the film, has come to Budapest to watch the first weeks' shooting. But at times he forgets that this is only an imitation of life.

The filmmakers have chosen Budapest as a setting because of its resemblance to wartime Austria. Every detail is chillingly authentic, including the ghoulish sign "Work Makes You Free" over the entrance of a re-creation of Austria's Mauthausen concentration camp, where inmates were brutally worked to death. "I was transported back," says Wiesenthal. "It was so real. I was crying and crying." He wasn't alone. Says producer John Kemeny: "The extras, the actors, everybody was crying."

Wiesenthal is played by Ben Kingsley, 44, the British actor who won the 1982 best-actor Academy Award for his compelling portrayal of Gandhi. The son of an English actress and an Indian physician, Kingsley himself is half-Jewish. "The subject is close to the surface with me," he says. "I was 11 when I saw a documentary on the camps. It left an indelible image—a massive indignation." Kingsley realized the role would be emotionally wrenching but knew he could not pass it up. "I have no qualms about great characters or great stories," he says. "All the great Shakespearean and Jacobean plays end where this one begins, with a pile of dead bodies and a man committed to telling the story."

Murderers Among Us begins with Wiesenthal's liberation from Mauthausen in 1945. Then 36, he came stumbling out of the camp into the arms of an American Army major. The film flashes back to the horrors he'd endured: Eighty-nine family members had been killed, including, he believed, his wife, Cyla. His life a shambles, he went to work helping the U.S. Army's war crimes unit document Nazi genocide.

Eventually, Cyla, who had in fact survived captivity as a slave laborer at a weapons factory in Germany, encountered a friend of Wiesenthal's in Poland, and husband and wife were ultimately reunited. Wiesenthal resolved to become the scourge of Third Reich fugitives, who had fled to the four corners of the earth. Over the years he has compiled 6,000 dossiers on Nazi war criminals and has helped bring 1,100 of them to justice. "Justice, not revenge," is Wiesenthal's motto. "When history looks back," he says, "I want people to know the Nazis weren't able to kill millions and get away with it."

To prepare for the role, Kingsley visited Wiesenthal's Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna, where Simon works. "It's modest, packed with paper—'blood turned into paper,' as Simon puts it," says Kingsley. The actor stayed in Simon and Cyla's unpretentious home, which is guarded at night by orders of the Austrian government. "He asked me such questions," laughs Simon, "I knew he would make a good Wiesenthal."

"Simon is dynamite when he tells a story," says Kingsley, who was impressed by the steely-eyed Nazi hunter's emotional vulnerability. "He gets ambushed by waves of memory and he cries." But what most amazed Kingsley was his host's energy, his dedication to his work. Wiesenthal is unstoppable—"like a tank," says Kingsley.

Wiesenthal sees nothing remarkable about his 20-hour-a-day dedication. "I think I am one of the last witnesses," he explains. "And a last witness, before he leaves this world, has an obligation to speak out. My work for half a lifetime is to inform people. My work is a warning for the murderers of tomorrow."

—By Jack Friedman, with Cathy Nolan in Budapest

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