ROADBLOCKS ON THE WAY TO JUSTICE: Prosecuting Nazi Fugitives in America — Part 2
One morning in August 2018, the Department of Justice announced that a former Nazi concentration camp guard who had lived for decades in Jackson Heights, Queens, had been deported to Germany.
Images of Jakiw Palij, who was 95 at the time, being carried on a stretcher by immigration officials, verified that the years-long saga that surrounded him had come to an end.
In 2004 a U.S. courts stripped Palij of his citizenship over his wartime actions and ordered him deported. The next part of his story was all too familiar to those hoping America could rid itself of Nazi war criminals.
Palij was born in a section of prewar Poland, currently part of Ukraine. His Holocaust-era service was in Nazi-occupied Poland. The Office of Special Investigations (OSI), which was created to prosecute Nazis who took refuge in the U.S., deemed Germany, Poland and Ukraine as appropriate destinations, where they hoped he would face charges. All three steadfastly refused to take him.
In the meantime, Palij continued to reside in his two-story brick home in the midst of the diverse Queens neighborhood. Calls for the U.S. government to find a way to deport him and for Germany to accept him became a cause célèbre for some Jewish activists, who held annual protests outside his home.
Yet, after years of requests from OSI and public pressure, seemingly the former guard was only removed from his illegitimately adopted homeland by a consonance of unrelated political factors.
The deportation came after weeks of negative reports of the Trump administration immigration agency’s treatment of illegal immigrants attempting to cross the Mexican border. The media and activist left had painted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in a particularly bad light. Deporting a Nazi guard was just what the administration needed to create an immigration enforcement story few could complain about.
At a press conference announcing Palij’s deportation, Theo Wold, Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, said that the move was “part of the broader effort of the administration to take our immigration laws seriously and to enforce a comprehensive notion of citizenship.”
America’s former ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, said that Mr. Trump had personally instructed him to make the issue a priority.
A sharper focus seemed to have won the day. The fact that Germany, which had resisted accepting non-German war criminals for fear of being inundated with them, likely surmised that it had little to lose by taking in one on his deathbed, presumably played a role as well.
Months later, news of Palij’s death in a German nursing home was the story’s final chapter.
While those who advocated for his removal from the U.S. were pleased that the deportation was finally fulfilled, the conclusion of Palij’s case raised a question.
Since the U.S. created an office to prosecute Nazi war criminals in the late 1970s, 109 perpetrators of the Holocaust were denaturalized. Yet, only 69 were actually removed from the country. The rest died in America, mostly facing similar dilemmas OSI faced with Palij — no one would take them.
Palij’s deportation and the events surrounding it implied that maybe the U.S. had not tried hard enough to pressure Germany or other Eastern European homelands of Nazi war criminals.
A few months ago, that suspicion sparked a letter by a trio of New York Congressmen, Jerrold Nadler, Hakeem Jeffries and Gregory Meeks, asking the State Department for an accounting of its efforts to effect deportation for nine Nazi war criminals whose citizenship was rescinded but who died in the United States.
“We recognize that other countries may simply have been unwilling to take custody of these criminals upon deportation from the U.S., but we welcome a clear picture of the diplomatic engagement around these cases that nevertheless failed to secure their deportation. It is important that the State Department provide the public with a complete accounting of that profound injustice,” read the letter in part.
The State Department declined to comment to Hamodia as to what action it planned to take regarding the request, and as of the time of this writing, Congressman Nadler’s office said that the Department had not yet replied to them either.
While most have given OSI high marks for their efforts to prosecute Holocaust perpetrators, frustration over the impediments to deportation abound.
“Without any doubt, the greatest single frustration has been our inability, in quite a number of cases now, to carry out the deportation orders that we’ve won in federal courts,” the office’s longtime leader, Eli Rosenbaum, said in a 2011 documentary.
Businessman and community activist Leon Goldenberg, who took the lead in lobbying for the letter, was convinced more could have been done.
“They didn’t try hard,” he said. “They could have gotten rid of them, and if they did, the Russians would have strung them up; they didn’t have all these problems.”
Part I of this article examined the U.S.’s early efforts to pursue justice against Nazis that made their way to America and the impediments that Cold War tensions threw in the way. This second piece examines some of OSI’s work in the post-Soviet era and the impediments that stood in the way of bringing many of their cases to fruition.
A New Era
The fall of the Iron Curtain ushered in a new and hopeful era for those set on America ridding itself of participants in Nazi genocide. With the Cold War no longer a factor, domestic political opposition to the Justice Department’s efforts quickly faded and a broader base rallied to support the cause.
Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union opened troves of documents and evidence which the Red Army captured from the Germans and more that had been gathered in subsequent investigations. While documents had trickled in from the USSR upon request during the ’70s and ’80s, OSI’s historians now began making frequent trips to dank filing rooms around Eastern Europe in search of evidence.
“The wartime rosters we were able to get from former Soviet archives were often the most important evidence we used, because it had names and birthdates, which allowed us to prove that we had the right person and to center in on the nature of their Nazi service,” said Jonathan Drimmer, who served as a prosecutor for OSI from 1998-2004.
The archives provided troves of new records and pay lists showing membership in units that historians could demonstrate took part in Holocaust crimes.
“To get a conviction, we generally needed documentation of the individual’s position at a concentration camp or a police battalion or other unit that was at the scene of a particular crime,” said Peter Black, who worked as a historian for OSI. “In some cases, that meant tying them to a specific incident, but once we established that someone was a guard at a concentration camp or killing center, that meant your daily job was participating in persecution.”
Building cases involved sorting through many old, ill-kept documents that led nowhere. But over time, Dr. Black said that pictures would emerge that could incriminate some of their suspects.
“The broad diversity of documents helped for a narrative of how the unit in question operated on a daily basis,” he said. “There was often a defense we heard that the individual would claim that even though his unit had carried out a certain shooting, he wasn’t feeling well that day and wasn’t there. Once we were granted access to records in Ukraine, the Baltic States and Russia, we could demonstrate what type of record there would be if someone was sick or if they were called back from an assignment. With this we could show without a smidgen of doubt that the defendant was lying.”
One unit that gained the notorious distinction of producing many OSI suspects was a group known as the Trawniki Men. Shortly after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the SS converted the grounds of an old sugar refinery in the town of Trawniki (20 miles south of Lublin) into a prisoner-of-war camp. Within a short period of time, the Trawniki camp became a training ground to convert Soviet POWs into guard units that worked with the SS, policing local populations and implementing the Final Solution. Many would later claim that their participation was compelled and that the only alternative was hunger and likely death in a prison camp. In many instances, recruits from Ukraine and the Baltic States saw more common cause with the Nazis than with the Soviets who had conscripted them and taken control of their homelands.
One key document on the Trawniki Men had been held in Moscow since shortly after the war. OSI used it not only to confirm membership, but to refute suspects’ defenses of unwilling participation.
“We were able to show that they received standard military benefits including pay and leave, family subsidies. We could convincingly make the argument that they were part of the German military and counter the claim that they always remained Soviet prisoners of war,” said Dr. Black.
Some Trawniki Men served at the camp itself, which partially served as a forced labor camp for Jews and later as a subcamp to Majdanek. Many of the Trawniki Men served as guards at other camps, especially Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, and were deployed to guard and liquidate several major ghettos, including in Warsaw, Lublin, Lvov and Bialystok.
Their effectiveness was recognized by Odilo Globocnik, a major general in the SS who had a leading role in the murder of over 1.5 million Jews in Poland, who said the Trawniki Men “have proved themselves in the best way in many anti-partisan missions, but especially in the framework of resettlement of the Jews.”
The man who likely occupies the inglorious distinction as OSI’s most famous case was himself a Trawniki Man, John Demjanjuk. Demjanjuk was a Ukrainian who served in the Red Army and was put through the Trawniki system after his capture by the Nazis in 1942. In 1952 he immigrated to the United States, working for many years in a Ford Motors plant near Cleveland.
Proceedings in the United States to denaturalize him began in 1975. The case drew much public attention chiefly because several survivors had identified him as “Ivan the Terrible,” a particularly cruel Treblinka guard.
Demjanjuk was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981, and in 1987 was deported to Israel, which had filed for his extradition. In Israel he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
While his appeals waited in the Israeli justice system, new evidence emerged from Soviet archives that seemed to support Demjanjuk’s claim that he was not Ivan the Terrible and had never served at Treblinka. The documents did, however, back up a prior theory advanced by some in the U.S. that he had served at the Sobibor, Majdanek, and Flossenberg concentration camps, as well as at Trawniki itself.
Still, the revelations were enough to overturn the Israeli convictions and send Demjanjuk back to the U.S., where he successfully got his citizenship reinstated.
The turnaround put OSI in an awkward position, but the office’s leaders decided to pursue a new case based on the freshly revealed evidence.
“When we tried his case, he was still heavily implicated. OSI did not have a lot of death camp guards, and that he was a senior guard at Sobibor and Majdanek during times of terrible persecution was not something we wanted to overlook,” said Mr. Drimmer, who worked on Demjanjuk’s second U.S. trial. “Having the overhand of prior proceedings, though, was significant. Everything we did was extra careful … It set the bar for our burden of proof much higher.”
Demjanjuk was once against denaturalized and sent this time to Germany in 2009, which had expressed an interest in trying him for his service at Sobibor. Demjanjuk was found guilty of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder, based on the number of people killed at the camp during his service there. He died in a German nursing home in 2012, while his case was on appeal.
“[In the U.S., the Demjanjuk case] didn’t establish any new legal principles, and most of the public interest was based on the history of thinking that he was Ivan the Terrible,” said Mr. Drimmer. “One thing that was discussed for the first time was the idea of voluntariness and that while he might not have entered service voluntarily, if you are in Nazi service for a period of time and you don’t request a transfer or run away, that becomes voluntary.”
Nazis Who Died at Home
In total, OSI won cases against 16 Trawniki Men, including Demjanjuk and Palij.
However, several of them appear in the recent Congressmen’s letter’s list who died in America.
Jakob Reimer’s case was highlighted by a recent book. An ethnic German raised in Ukraine who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s and operated a franchise of Wise Potato Chips in Brooklyn, his name caught OSI’s attention both for the high rank he achieved and the fact that, in 1944, Nazi Germany had granted him citizenship. For years, Reimer denied being anything more than a paymaster, but once confronted with documents from an archive in Prague at an interrogation led by Eli Rosenbaum, he admitted to being present at liquidations of the Warsaw, Czestochowa and Lublin ghettos. Reimer also admitted to shooting one Jew personally during a mass execution in a forest.
Reimer was denaturalized in 2002, but no country was found to accept him, and he died in 2005 in Pennsylvania.
Bronislaw Hajda was a Polish Trawniki Man who, in Communist-era proceedings against Nazi collaborators, had been implicated by fellow guards as having escorted hundreds of Jews to be murdered in the woods near Treblinka, shooting several himself. A U.S. court denaturalized him in 1998, but neither Poland nor Germany would accept him and, in 2005, he died in his home in a Chicago suburb.
Others on the list served in other units. Osyp Firishchak joined the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police in 1941 and served in Lvov [Lemberg; currently Lviv] for most of the war, enforcing local policies of genocide. OSI won their case against him and he was ordered deported to Ukraine in 2007, but Ukraine refused to take Firishchak, and he died in 2013 in Chicago.
Michael Negele, who died in St. Peters, Missouri, in 2008, served as a guard and dog handler in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and later at the Theresienstadt ghetto. He was refused by both the Czech Republic and Germany.
“Countries saw no upside in letting these people in, they saw older people who were relying on government insurance that brought back an era they did not want to remember,” said Mr. Drimmer.
More to Know?
During the Cold War era, some blamed deportation impasses on U.S. officials for being hesitant to turn over individuals to Communist governments. However, Dr. Black said that while the Soviets did take some high-profile deportees, those countries were often reluctant to help.
“U.S. officials were in a difficult position. Even if they wanted them out, the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc didn’t want them,” he said. “They felt having trials would raise unwelcome issues and percolating ethnic tensions, fire up memories of pre-Soviet times. It was much better for them to leave them here and complain about it.”
While Dr. Black said that there were instances when the State Department could have done more to push nations to accept those OSI denaturalized, that it was not a symptom of opposition to the cause.
“There were officials who were reluctant, not because they had any sympathy for Nazi criminals, but there were foreign officers who perceived rightly or wrongly that there were other issues they considered to be more serious in the long run,” he said. Dr. Black added that even during the 1980s, when some in the government viewed OSI’s activities as threatening America’s anti-communist ideology and through the end of his tenure with the office in 1997, he “never heard of any systematic opposition or foot-dragging when we were negotiating to send people over.”
As Nazi criminals grew older, Germany showed some willingness to accept and prosecute a few individuals, but numbers remained limited. While the USSR sometimes reveled in the opportunity to imprison collaborators, the nations that made up post-communist Eastern Europe nearly always refused to accept their own native Nazis on return from the U.S.
Neal Scher, who led OSI from 1982 to 1994 and passed away this year, lashed out at Germany for its refusal to accept denaturalized war criminals in a 2018 opinion piece in the New York Daily News, where he referenced a conversation with a German diplomat who asked him why his country should accept “America’s garbage.”
In the same piece, however, Mr. Scher offered a scathing assessment of the U.S. State Department whose behavior on the matter he called “spineless.”
“My office repeatedly received nothing more than lip service from State,” he wrote. “It was painfully clear that they were not on our side. In 1985, the House Judiciary Committee publicly lambasted the State Department for ‘seriously undermining’ our Nazi prosecutions by making only ‘routine inquiries’ of Germany and other European nations.”
For several years, a Congressional- appointed committee reviewed thousands of U.S. government documents related to World War II-era war crimes. Holocaust historian Richard Breitman, who served as a member of the review group, said their search revealed little that implicated U.S. diplomats.
“The State Department took [deportations] seriously, as far as I know, but it was not a task that was easy or that was a high-priority at State,” he said.
The commission’s chief mission was to declassify the relevant documents and deliver them to the National Archives. As such, the recent Congressmen’s letter requesting a fuller telling of the State Department’s efforts would only be relevant to information that escaped that process.
Former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, whose advocacy created the key statute that allowed for OSI’s work and was also a member of the commission, said that whatever remains from most of the relevant years is not digitized and that an additional search would be technically challenging. She added that if there were indeed documents that had not been reviewed by the commission, that itself would be suspicious.
“I’m not sure that the documents that are being requested haven’t already been given to the National Archives,” said Mrs. Holtzman. “Each agency was supposed to turn everything they had over, and if the State Department didn’t do that, I would have a lot of serious questions.”
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