In the fulfillment of a long-pursued goal, the last suspected Nazi war criminal marked for deportation from the United States was taken by immigration officials from his home in Queens and flown to Dusseldorf, Germany, Tuesday morning.
Jakiw Palij, 95, was stripped of his United States citizenship in 2004 on grounds that he lied about his Holocaust-era actions in order to enter the United States in 1949. His deportation was ordered but not carried out because the three countries deemed appropriate for his return — Germany, Poland and Ukraine — refused to accept him.
Local politicians and activists had long exerted pressure on the Justice and State Departments to find a way to effect his removal. According to administration officials, the deportation was a result of a decision by President Trump to prioritize the issue, and “different energy” on the part of new members of the German cabinet. Despite agreeing to accept Palij, Germany is unlikely to prosecute him, as little evidence exists regarding actions during the Holocaust.
Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, whose office oversaw Palji’s removal, said the move bespoke the government’s commitment to preventing perpetrators of war crimes from settling within America’s borders.
“Nazi war criminals and human rights violators have no safe haven on our shores,” she said. “We will relentlessly pursue them, wherever they may be found, and bring them to justice. The arrest and removal of Jakiw Palij to Germany is a testament to the dedication and commitment of the men and women of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], who faithfully enforce our immigration laws to protect the American people.”
Since learning of Palij’s past several decades ago, Eli Rosenbaum, Director of Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy at the Department of Justice, pushed for the stripping of the former guard’s citizenship, and advocated for other branches of government to find a way to deport him.
“If anyone had told me in 2002 — when we commenced the civil prosecution of Jakiw Palij in federal court in Brooklyn, New York to revoke his ill-gotten U.S. citizenship, or in 2004, when we won a court-order of removal against him — that in 2018 he would finally be deported to Germany, I would have found it nearly impossible to believe,” he said.
America’s Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, said that the president had instructed him to make the issue a priority. Over the past year, both former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions received letters from New York politicians calling for Palji to be removed from the United States, but the ambassador said he did not know what had brought the matter to President Trump’s attention, saying only, “[In] my private conversations with the president he made it very clear that he wanted this individual out of the U.S.”
Officials credited German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer with changing their government’s decade-long position that they would not accept Palij, citing a lack of sufficient evidence for him to be prosecuted for war crimes. Minister Maas told German media that enabling his deportation was part of his country’s “moral obligation to the victims and the subsequent generations.”
Negotiations have apparently been in the works for several weeks between American and German officials. On Monday, Palij was removed on a stretcher from his two-story brick home in the Jackson Heights section of Queens. He was subsequently flown via an air ambulance staffed with personnel who could tend to the aged man’s medical needs. On Tuesday, he arrived at Dusseldorf airport and was transferred to a nursing home in the town of Ahlen.
Palij was born in a part of Poland that is today part of Ukraine and served as a guard in the Trawniki concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, where several thousand Jews and other prisoners were murdered. He came to America claiming he was a war refugee and was granted citizenship in 1957.
A statement made by the Justice Department at the time of Palij’s citizenship revocation said he was trained at Trawniki’s training camp in the spring of 1943. On Nov. 3, 1943, more than 6,000 men, women and children incarcerated at Trawniki were killed. In his decision ordering Palij’s deportation, a judge wrote that these victims “had spent at least half a year in camps guarded by Trawniki-trained men, including Jakiw Palij.”
The Justice Department said that by acting as a guard, Palij prevented prisoners from escaping, making him at least complicit in their deaths.
Palij has repeatedly claimed that he was forced into service for the Nazis and denied any wrongdoing, saying that he was not involved in causing harm to any prisoners.
When applying for entrance to the United States, he claimed that he had worked on a farm and in factories during the war years. After settling in America, he worked as a draftsman and evaded the attention of the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting unit until he was identified by another former Trawniki guard in 1989.
An investigation was initiated, during which Palij admitted to serving in Trawniki, resulting in revocation of his citizenship in 2004.
Palij has lived for decades in the Jackson Heights section of Queens. The area is often touted as one of the most diverse in the country, with a particularly large population of Indians, Pakistanis and immigrants from various South and Central American countries. It was once home to a thriving Jewish community as well, which has dwindled. Somewhat ironically, Palij’s home is about a block away from the neighborhood’s Tifereth Israel shul and two blocks from its now-shuttered Young Israel.
Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), whose district includes Jackson Heights and who has written several letters to this and previous administrations calling for Palij’s deportation, welcomed the development.
“Jackson Heights is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America, and the presence of a former Nazi guard in the heart of our neighborhood violated our most cherished values of love, equality, and acceptance,” he said. “This process dragged on for far too long, but today, our Jewish neighbors, and all proud Americans, can rest assured that our nation took a stand against hate.”
Ironically, Congressman Crowley was defeated in this year’s primary election by Democratic-Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has called for the abolition of ICE, the agency directly involved in Palij’s removal from the United States.
In response to a question from a New York Times reporter as to whether the administration’s action on Palij was part of its broader crackdown on illegal immigration, Theo Wold, Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, said that the move was “part of the broader effort on the administration to take our immigration laws seriously and to enforce a comprehensive notion of citizenship.”
As many as 10,000 former Nazi soldiers, guards, and others who participated in the Holocaust are believed to have fled the United States after the conclusion of the Second World War. In the 1970s, the DOJ began taking a more active role in prosecuting those suspected of war crimes.
Since 1979, they have won 108 cases against Nazi persecutors and affected the deportation of 67 of them. Though several individuals, largely unknown to officials, are suspected of taking part in the atrocities of the Holocaust, Palij was the last case of a pending deportation.
In his statements following news of Palij’s deportation, Mr. Rosenbaum of the DOJ gave credit to Rabbi Zev Freidman, Dean of the Rambam Mesivta in Lawrence, New York, for keeping the cause in the public eye. Since 2003, on a yearly basis, he has led protests outside of Palij’s home joined by several classes of students from the school he leads demanding the former guard’s removal. The rallies were also joined by Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who championed the cause for several years.
“We are happy to see that this murderer was deported, but we are saddened that it took so many years to happen,” said Rabbi Freidman. “All eyes will be on Germany to see if they bring him to trial or allow technicalities to delay and enable him to live as a free man.”