Simon Wiesenthal   Letter 03   10-Dec-1994   Suicide by saccharin
December 10, 1994

Simon Wiesenthal
Jewish Documentation Center
Vienna, Austria

Dear Mr. Wiesenthal:

You say that while you were hospitalized under German captivity, you tried to commit suicide:

Rather than risk betraying the partisans who'd sheltered him, Wiesenthal opted again for suicide.

"When I went to the doctor for him to change my bandages, I stole a jar of pills.  They were very little, so I thought I had better take them all four of five hundred of them to finish myself off.

"So I waited until midnight and got them all down me.  And do you know what they were?" he asks with a twinkle.  "Five hundred tablets of saccharin!"

While Wiesenthal was recovering from this minor stomach upset, Waltke paid him a visit and told him: "That wasn't necessary, child.  We aren't monsters."  (Alan Levy, The Wiesenthal File, 1993, p. 54)

Concerning your story, I have several questions:

(1)  I would have expected that in a hospital or in a medical examining room, dangerous pills would be kept under lock and key.  Why is it that you expected that the first unguarded bottle of pills that you managed to lay your hands on would contain a lethal dosage?

(2)  In my Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary, I find that saccharin is "several hundred times sweeter than cane sugar and is used as a calorie-free sweetener."  From this, I would have thought that saccharin would be used not as a medicine but as a sweetener, and so might have been kept among the food additives in a kitchen rather than in a medical examining room.  How do you account for the presence of a bottle of saccharin pills in a medical examining room?

(3)  Surely all bottles of pills in a hospital or in a doctor's office are labelled.  Surely you must have consulted the label on the bottle of pills that you stole.  As you waited until midnight to swallow the pills, you had plenty of time to consult this label.  Wouldn't the bottle of pills that you stole have said "saccharin" on it and wouldn't you have noticed this?

(4)  As the taste of saccharin is very sweet "several hundred times sweeter than cane sugar" and as it is in fact used as a sweetener, then there is no reason to coat a saccharin pill, and so in swallowing the 500 pills, your tongue and mouth would have come into direct contact with the saccharin, and so you would have had to become aware of the sweet taste, and this sweet taste should have made you question what kind of pills it was that you were taking.  And yet, you ask us to believe that you continued to swallow pill after pill, or more likely handful after handful of pills 500 pills in total all the while taking no notice of the sweet taste.

(5)  How did you know there were 500 pills was it by reading the label on the bottle?

(6)  You say, "And do you know what they were?  Five hundred tablets of saccharin!"  But how is it that you finally discovered that the pills were only saccharin?  If it was by the sweet taste, then we are brought back to the question of why you hadn't noticed this sweet taste while swallowing the pills; if it was by looking at the label, then we are brought back to the question of why you hadn't consulted this label earlier.  If it was not either of these, then what was it?

(7)  If your motive for committing suicide was to avoid betraying the partisans under the torture that you expected was awaiting you upon your recovery, then why didn't you attempt some surer method of committing suicide just as soon as you saw that the pills were not having the expected effect?

(8)  Since the only effect of taking the pills was a "mild stomach upset," how did the Germans become aware that you had attempted suicide?  A "mild stomach upset" is something that nobody other than yourself would be aware of.  Even had you complained to the hospital staff of your "mild stomach upset," this would not have led them to suspect you of having attempted suicide.  In a hospital, an empty saccharin bottle would be easy to conceal or dispose of, and if discovered might be taken as evidence of a sweet tooth, but not of a suicide attempt.  And yet somehow the German torturer Waltke knows that you attempted suicide and says "That wasn't necessary, child.  We aren't monsters."

(9)  I suppose, then, that you must have told the Germans that you had tried to commit suicide but in that case you would subsequently have been watched more carefully, and so your plan to avoid betraying the partisans by committing suicide would have been frustrated.

(10)  And if you had told the Germans that you had attempted suicide, wouldn't they have noticed some of the same incongruities that I have been pointing out above, and wouldn't they have asked you the same questions that I am asking you?  Rather than Waltke taking your suicide attempt seriously as he seems to do when he says "That wasn't necessary, child.  We aren't monsters" I would have expected him to ridicule you for its insincerity.

Allowing such a story to stand without clarification can only have the effect of opening up even wider the question of your credibility.  I look forward to hearing your response.

Yours truly,

Lubomyr Prytulak