THE LONG ARM OF THE LAW: Prosecuting Nazi Fugitives in America — Part 1

hunting nazis
Site of the former Nazi death camp Majdanek outside the city of Lublin in eastern Poland. (AP Photo / Czarek Sokolowski)

During her freshman term in Congress, Elizabeth Holtzman was sitting in her Washington office when she was visited by a man she had never met. The visitor conveyed news that he hoped Mrs. Holtzman, who had gained a reputation for grillings in the committee room, could address.

“He told me, ‘You know, the U.S. government has a list of Nazi war criminals living in the United States,’” relayed Mrs. Holtzman, who still retells the story with drama more than 45 years later. “He looked and acted like a normal person, he wasn’t claiming to be seeing laser beams or anything like that. I told him ‘Thank you very much,’ but I thought he must be out of his mind.”

As incredulous as she was, Mrs. Holtzman could not put the matter out of her mind. She sat on the House committee on immigration and the next time the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s commissioner showed up for a routine hearing, she asked him about it, expecting an out of hand dismissal.

“I said, ‘Is it true that you have a list of Nazi war criminals living in the United States?’ and he said ‘Yes.’ I almost fell off my seat,” she said.

Taken by surprise, Mrs. Holtzman followed up by asking what the government was doing with this knowledge, but to that, the commissioner gave a muddy response, prompting the young Congresswoman to request files on the cases she now knew indeed existed. A review essentially revealed that immigration officials had received several allegations from citizens who had reason to suspect that their neighbors or coworkers had a hand in Nazi atrocities, but that next to nothing had been done to investigate these claims.

“I saw that there was a big problem and that’s when I blew the whistle,” said Mrs. Holtzman.

Through a combination of public attention, lobbying, and, ultimately, legislation, by 1979 a new unit known as the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) was established in the Department of Justice with the sole purpose of investigating and prosecuting those who had perpetrated Nazi crimes and managed to take refuge in America.

Over a period of four decades, declassification of records helped explain how many former Nazis were able the enter the U.S. and the OSI brought hundreds of cases, which Mrs. Holtzman feels went a long way in righting a national wrong.

“We do have a much clearer sense of U.S. involvement after World War II with Nazi war criminals. And we also have a very strong record now of having acted against the Nazi war criminals in the United States.”

Of the 1,700 accused war criminals investigated by the OSI, 300 were prosecuted, with over 100 denaturalized and 70 deported, which according to most tolls is more legal action than any other single country.

Yet, the tale of prosecuting this unique criminal band was one of many twists and wrinkles, and some of its work remains undone.

Waking Up to a Nazi Diaspora

Soon after the Allied victory in the Second World War, as the world began to see the breadth and depth of Nazi inhumanity, cries for accountability were near universal and the Nuremberg Tribunal garnered wide attention and support.

Yet soon after, the Cold War quickly overwhelmed that interest while countless individuals who had a hand in Nazi genocide returned to comfortable and deliberately inconspicuous lives, some in their own countries and many in adopted homelands, including the United States.

As would be revealed decades later, causing great controversy, the Nazi affiliations of some were known to the U.S. government, but overlooked, feeling that their scientific knowledge or value to intelligence operations made it critical to enlist these individuals to the West’s cause before the Soviets made them a better offer.

Many more slipped into America by omitting their roles in atrocities of the war years during visa and citizenship applications. Collaborators from Eastern Europe had a relatively easy time gaining entry in the postwar years, claiming (in most cases accurately) that they were refugees from persecution by Communist governments. At a time when the U.S. was motivated morally and politically to show itself as a friendly sanctuary from the oppression of the Soviet bloc, such a claim was often a ticket to entry. A shortage of agricultural laborers in the 1950s made the visa process even easier for them. Ironically, quite a few came under the 1948 Displaced Persons Act, largely designed to help victims of Nazi oppression.

“Between the Berlin airlift, the Greek Civil War, the hydrogen bomb, and the Korean invasion, it is not an overstatement to say that the minds of American policy makers and immigration officials in the 1950s were not focused on [Nazi war criminals],” said Peter Black, a Holocaust historian who worked for the OSI and is presently a consultant for the United States Holocaust Museum.

Richard Breitman, a Holocaust historian who published a book on Nazis the U.S. used for intelligence operations, said that an assumption that the war criminals who made it to America were from the lowest echelons of the Nazi hierarchy fed popular indifference about their presence in the country.

“There were people who came to the conclusion that these people were small fry and if they had intelligence value, that was a reason for letting them in,” he said. “The truth was, though, that not all of them were so low on the chain and for those that were, especially for Eastern European collaborators, being low on the chain likely meant that they were directly involved in mass murder.”

A series of events over the coming decades raised awareness and moved many in the U.S. to call for action.

One impetus that occurred sporadically throughout the 1960s and ’70s was a double-edged sword, alerting the public to the possible presence of Nazis in the country, but thrusting the matter into the crucible of Cold War politics.

Multiple times, usually when the Soviet Union was involved in some level of crisis and wanted to distract the U.S., communist propagandists used captured wartime documents to spread a narrative that America was knowingly sheltering propagators of the Final Solution. These stories, complete with the names, residences, and alleged crimes of the subjects, appeared in pamphlets smuggled into the United States by loyal communists and were written up in newspapers and magazines by Soviet-sympathizing journalists in the West who worked in coordination with officials in Moscow.

“They would cut out pieces of information and the conclusions the Soviets drew in the text were not always accurate and were often misleading, but the documents themselves were genuine,” said Dr. Black. “It led to an increasing awareness that there were documents that Western investigators had never seen and that there were people here who had been less than candid about what they did during the war.”

A second major event was the deportation of Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, who served as a guard and later wardeness at the Majdanek concentration camp. In the mid-1960s, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal used American media to reveal that the former SS member, recalled by several survivors for her exceptional cruelty, was living as the wife of an American construction worker in the Maspeth section of Queens. The story and subsequent proceedings against the “quiet” and “polite” housewife accused of stomping prisoners to death with her jackboots garnered wide public interest.

In 1968, American authorities began to work toward stripping Braunsteiner Ryan of citizenship on the grounds that she had not revealed her postwar convictions for crimes against humanity in Austrian courts. In 1973, she became the first Nazi war criminal to be deported from the U.S., and was subsequently sentenced to life in prison by a court in West Germany where she had been sent.

“Braunsteiner Ryan’s case awakened attention in the U.S. and people started to ask, ‘How many more are here?’” said Dr. Black.

Dr. Black also credited a general increase in discussion of the Holocaust in the 1970s along with several books and articles on Nazis in America that he characterized as sensationalist and lacking accuracy, but that effectively brought the issue to the fore.

Those who had seen Nazi terror themselves, he said, also played an important role.

“There was a generation of survivors who were now comfortable in America and some who had good financial resources and were in a position to contact their Congressmen and ask, ‘What’s going on here?’ U.S. veterans, too, that had liberated camps, mostly didn’t want to talk about what they had seen, but once these stories started to come out, they wanted to know why nothing was done about these people.”

‘We’re Not Going to Be a Safe Haven for Nazi War Criminals’

It was against this background that Mrs. Holtzman began agitating for the U.S. government to take more action to prevent the oppressors and enablers of the worst atrocities in modern history from living out their days comfortably, enjoying the freedoms of America.

hunting nazis
Former U.S. citizen Fyodor Federenko, who was deported from the United States and stripped of his citizenship, stands on trial in Simferopol, in his native Ukraine, June 1986. (AP Photos/Boris Yurchenko)

Her efforts eventually culminated in legislation known as the Holtzman Amendment, passed in 1978, which created the mandate to denaturalize and deport anyone who it could be proven had “ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the [Nazi] persecution.” Importantly, it removed a hurdle in many immigration cases by saying Nazi criminals could not be shielded from deportation by claiming that being forced to leave the county would be a hardship on family members or that they had been upright citizens since arrival.

Several other nations that sought to act against Nazi war criminals tried them for the crimes they had committed. Germany, beginning in 1963, with the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, convicted hundreds. The USSR held many such trials, but motivations were often a mixed bag of pursuit of justice for Holocaust crimes with retribution against nationalist and anti-Communist leaders, and many proceedings were show trials based on conclusions finalized before coming to court.

Yet, in the United States, restrictions on ex post facto convictions and other legal hurdles rendered trials for the actual crimes committed by Nazis an impossibility. As such, the most U.S. prosecutors could do was work toward their removal, with the hopes that they would face justice in other countries.

“It was not possible to prosecute them here, so we did the next best thing, which was to say that we’re not going to be a haven for Nazi war criminals,” said Mrs. Holtzman.

With the amendment and public attention came the creation of an office dedicated to investigating and prosecuting Nazi war criminals. It operated for a short time within immigration services, but in 1979, the OSI was officially established as part of the Criminal Justice division of the Department of Justice.

“[The DOJ] was a good home. [The OSI] was surrounded by people who understood how to make difficult cases,” said Mrs. Holtzman. “I was DA, and I can tell you it’s not easy to bring a murder case 20 years after the fact. … These cases were brought in federal courts and defendants got due process to the nth degree, and that’s what I wanted, because it was important that no one could attack the integrity and professionalism of what we were doing.”

Up Against an Iron Curtain

The OSI faced no shortage of challenges, especially in its first decade. Even as relations began to thaw between the USSR and the U.S., the Cold War still loomed large.

Not the least of these impediments was that, usually, the most crucial evidence was in files deep behind the Iron Curtain.

“When we would ask the USSR or one of the bloc states for information relating to an individual we were investigating, sometimes we would get something back, but usually it was only the first element,” said Dr. Black, who as one of the OSI’s historians was charged with helping prosecutors piece together wartime evidence. “Given the mindset of Soviet authorities, that was enough for a conviction to them there, but it wasn’t for us. We needed to tie these people to specific units and to specific crimes, but it was difficult to get that much out of them. There was a culture of secrecy and the Soviets at that time really didn’t want us to know where these documents were.”

A hurdle that was equally challenging was resistance from within the U.S. government, as many hardline anti-Communists objected to relying on evidence supplied by the Soviets.

In the OSI’s protracted legal battle to denaturalize Boleslav Maikovskis, a pro-Nazi Latvian police chief who ordered the killing of over 170 people in 1942, an immigration court judge dismissed the case, largely because he deemed evidence that emanated from the USSR linking Maikovskis to the incident inadmissible. Eventually, Maikovskis, who had lived in Minneola, New York, since 1951, was ordered deported by an appeals court. In 1987, he fled the U.S., fearing that he would be sent to the USSR where he had been tried in absentia and sentenced to death. Maikovskis entered West Germany gaining a visa using false information and was eventually tried there but died of a heart attack before a verdict was reached.

Opposition from within government took other forms as well.

Patrick Buchanan, who worked as White House communications director from 1985-87, often criticized the OSI’s work publicly, claiming it hurt the cause against the USSR and was a poor use of DOJ resources he said would be better spent on addressing present criminal threats. Regarding multiple cases he sent memos to the DOJ heads and carried on media campaigns calling on the government to drop prosecution efforts and defund the OSI.

The position picked up sympathy in some quarters, occasionally posing an internal challenge to the unit’s operation.

“The OSI had to fight every day for their budget,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, Vice Chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who was involved in lobby efforts to support prosecutions against Nazi war criminals. Mr. Hoenlein said that he recalled a conversation with Alan Gerson, who took an active role in prosecutions during his tenure as assistant attorney general during the Reagan administration, where the latter “bemoaned the situation, and said they weren’t getting the support they needed.”

The Karl Linnas Affair

Few cases demonstrated the complexity of the OSI’s job during the Cold War era more than that of Karl Linnas.

Linnas had served as the commander of a concentration camp in his native Estonia and, as such, was one of the highest-ranking war criminals found in the U.S. On at least one occasion he ordered guards to open fire on prisoners kneeling next to an open ditch, which became their grave. Following the war, Linnas made his way from a Displaced Persons camp to the United States in 1951, settling in Greenlawn, New York.

hunting nazis
Karl Linnas, facing a Soviet death sentence on charges of supervising Nazi concentration camp executions, is escorted by federal agents at New York’s Kennedy International Airport, April 20, 1987 to an awaiting plane. The Supreme Court and the Justice Department Monday turned down his bids to remain in the United States, according to the government. (AP Photo/Rick Maiman)

The OSI won their case against him and, in 1981, a court stripped him of citizenship. Appeals dragged on for several years while he was defended by former Johnson administration attorney general and civil libertarian Ramsey Clark, but the decision was ultimately upheld on appeal in 1986.

The most natural destination for Linnas was the USSR, of which Estonia was then a satellite state. He too had been convicted and sentenced to death in absentia by a Soviet court in the 1960s.

Yet, several prominent figures on the American political right, joined by staunchly anti-Communist groups of Baltic state expatriates, strenuously objected to a deportation to the Soviet Union. In addition to objections of reliance on Soviet-supplied evidence, they said turning Linnas over to face a sentence arrived at through a show trial would pervert the integrity of American justice.

Further complicating the matter was the fact that the U.S. never recognized Soviet control over Estonia, and a deportation to the USSR would be viewed as de facto acquiescence to their rule. Some who advocated against the deportation, but felt that Linnas should be punished, suggested that changes be made to U.S. law to allow for him to be tried for his crimes in American courts.

At one point, Panama offered to accept Linnas and many thought the DOJ was ready to take them up on the offer as the easiest way to end the affair.

“The government wanted to deport him to Panama so that he could spend the rest of his life going to the beach and lying under palm trees during his retirement. That was not what we had in mind when the OSI was created,” said Mrs. Holtzman. She learned of the plan over Pesach, which Mrs. Holtzman said showed a deliberate attempt to act under the radar of Jewish activists.

Mrs. Holtzman and others raised a public hue and cry against what they surmised was an imminent decision by the DOJ and amid the controversy, Panama rescinded its offer. Yet an exhaustive study on the OSI’s operations by Judy Feigin said that, based on DOJ documentation from the time, it was unclear and perhaps unlikely that then-Attorney General Edwin Meese was actually planning to send Linnas to Panama.

In 1987 he was sent to the USSR. Three months later, he died in a prison hospital.

Laying the Groundwork

Of particular importance was a 1981 Supreme Court ruling that allowed the OSI to continue its prosecution of Feodor Federenko.

Federenko was a Ukrainian who was captured by the Nazis while fighting as a soldier in the Red Army. After spending time in a POW camp, he was trained as a concentration camp guard and served more than a year at the Treblinka death camp. The Supreme Court rejected his argument that his visa application had been legitimate since his service in the camp was involuntary.

The ruling set an important precedent that cleared the way for many of the OSI’s cases to proceed. In 1984, Federenko became the first Nazi war criminal the U.S. deported to the USSR. In 1987, Soviet officials announced that he had been executed by a firing squad.

Despite myriad challenges during its early period, the OSI won many cases, raised public awareness, and set the groundwork to take advantage of the windfall of information and broadened support that would come with the fall of the Soviet Union.

“With the resources available and in the context of not having free access to evidence before 1989, the OSI had an impressive record of bringing Nazi offenders into the courtroom,” said Dr. Black. “In the 1980s, with German efforts winding down and the Soviet efforts past their peak, we were the only authority actively doing this. I like to think it formed a link of continuity that these offenses ought to be adjudicated and understood as criminal actions regardless of how much time passed or of the political consequences.”

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