Hunting the Last Nazi Murderers Among Us
By Paul FinkelmanApril 6, 2020
Citizen 865 by Debbie Cenziper
The book also touches on current politics. If President Donald Trump actually understood what happened in Treblinka, Auschwitz, or the Warsaw Ghetto, he might not have told the world there were “very fine people” chanting antisemitic Nazi slogans in their torchlight parade in Charlottesville. As we debate the fate of desperate refugees fleeing lethal violence in Central America, it is worth recalling how Republican leaders, like President Ronald Reagan’s communications director Patrick Buchanan and his attorney general, Edwin Meese, objected to denaturalization hearings and the deportation of Nazi war criminals to the USSR.
In 1979, with legislation sponsored by Democratic Representative Elizabeth Holtzman of Brooklyn, and the support of President Jimmy Carter, the US Department of Justice created the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) to hunt war criminals who had illegally entered the United States. The object was not to punish them for their crimes — the US had no jurisdiction over them for the murders they committed and the genocide they carried out — but, by lying to immigration officials about their wartime activities when they entered the US and when they applied for citizenship, they were subject to denaturalization and deportation.
Remarkably, in trying to protect those who committed crimes against humanity, Buchanan would deny that people were gassed at Treblinka, which he claimed was a “transit camp,” not a death camp, ignoring the fact the Nazis killed about 900,000 Jews there. He publicly denounced the OSI for “running down 70-year-old camp guards” and “wallowing in the atrocities of a dead regime.” Buchanan’s disinterest in history and justice is echoed in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and in the rise of hate crimes and murders in the United States.
By the mid-1970s, World War II had been over for three decades. Trials of Nazis had mostly ended, and the war criminals at Nuremberg were long buried. Those executed at Nuremberg included both Nazi leaders who planned and perpetrated the Holocaust and German military leaders who had carried out a policy of killing disarmed prisoners of war. That too was a war crime, whether done on a mass scale or by a single rogue soldier. In 1962, 16 years after Nuremberg, Israel executed Adolf Eichmann for his role in masterminding the Holocaust. By 1970, West Germany had lost interest in hunting down and prosecuting the thousands of former SS men and women, the camp guards and killers, and the banal war criminals, who had melted into postwar German society, hiding their identities and past deeds.
At the same time, West Germany was making cash payments to Holocaust survivors and emerging as Israel’s best friend in Europe. A decade and half after the execution of Eichmann, the Israeli Navy would begin replacing its aging submarine force with state-of-the-art Dolphin Class Submarines — essentially modern U-Boats — built in Germany. As Cenziper explains, while Germany was remorseful and making amends to Israel and to survivors of the Holocaust, it had no stomach for confronting the faces of its evil past who were peacefully and sometimes prosperously living in their fatherland or overseas.
In the United States (and elsewhere), former camp guards, SS troops, Gestapo thugs, doctors who performed horrible experiments on prisoners, and other cold-blooded murderers and sadists also lived freely. They had no fear of discovery, prosecution, or any penalty for their active (and usually enthusiastic) participation in the murder of millions of Jews, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gays and lesbians, intellectuals, labor leaders, and anyone else who did not fit into the Nazi vision of the new world order.
After the war, thousands of these criminals made their way to the United States, even though American law prohibited the immigration of war criminals, camp guards, and others who participated in acts of persecution. Immigration officials questioned and investigated German immigrants and Eastern Europeans who might also have been complicit in the Nazi death machines. In fact, many were excluded. But many war criminals and murderers were skilled at lying about their sadistic pasts and were able to create false narratives of what they had done during the war. Thus, they slipped into the country and became ordinary citizens, often constructing themselves as refugees from communism rather than killers wanted for their murderous behavior in Eastern Europe, Germany, Austria, and elsewhere.
Once in the United States, they were careful not to reveal their politics, their hatreds, or their pathological antisemitism. These men — and some women — had personally killed civilians with guns, beat them, herded them into cattle cars, and marched them into gas chambers. As the war ended, they exchanged their uniforms for civilian clothing, obtained new identity cards, constructed false narratives of merely being soldiers or office workers, and slipped unnoticed into the United States, brazenly lying to immigration officials, often claiming they were victims of Nazi oppression.
Camp guards, murderers, and other Nazi collaborators from Ukraine, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Russia, and what became East Germany — the Soviet Union and its satellites — cleverly played on the virulent anticommunism of the Cold War, claiming they were victims of Soviet oppression, and would be jailed or worse if they were forced to return to their former homelands. What they did not say, of course, is that they would have been “oppressed” because they were actually vicious war criminals.
And so the murderers quietly lived among us, their evil hidden from their neighbors and even their own families.
In 1979, after Representative Holtzman’s legislation created the Office of Special Investigation, the Department of Justice began to hunt the hidden war criminals illegally living in the United States. The OSI was charged with finding Nazi war criminals who had lied about their wartime activities, taking away their citizenship, and expelling them from the country. The US could not prosecute them for their murderous activities in Europe, but it could deport them with the hope that when they returned to the scene of their crimes, they might indeed be punished.
Citizen 865 tells the story of the OSI’s work. Cenziper recounts how historians went through mountains of documents to discover the war criminals who lied their way into the United States and lived in comparative peace and prosperity — sometimes significant prosperity — while hiding their criminal pasts. Valerian Trifa, for example, had been a fascist organizer in Bucharest and the leader of the Romanian Iron Guard, which attacked Jews. “In the streets, Jews were stabbed, beaten, shot, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. In a Bucharest slaughterhouse, they were murdered in a fashion intended to mock kosher butchering techniques, then left to hang on meat hooks.” After lying about his past, Trifa came to the United States, where he ultimately became an archbishop of the Romanian Orthodox Church in America. Romanian authorities had prosecuted Trifa in absentia, sentencing him to life in prison, but Cold War America was not interested in deporting someone — even a vicious war criminal — to an Iron Curtain country. In 1957, Jewish survivors in Michigan identified Trifa as a war criminal, but he managed to evade a full investigation until the OSI was established. In 1980, in the middle of his denaturalization hearing, he agreed to voluntarily surrender his citizenship and leave the United States. He was allowed to enter Portugal in 1984, once more lying about his fascist past. Portugal was attempting to deport him when he died in 1987.
Cenziper also reminds us of the politics of deporting Nazis. In the mid-1980s, leaders of the Reagan administration denounced the OSI for attempting to repatriate Karl Linnas, who had been convicted in absentia for murdering Jews in Estonia. Linnas had been the commandant of a concentration camp in Estonia, where he supervised the murder of Jewish women and children. He lied about this when he immigrated to the United States. The OSI and every court that heard this case approved returning him to his homeland to face justice. But Attorney General Edwin Meese tried to get Panama to accept him as a refugee, arguing that it was unfair to send him to the Soviet Union, where he might be executed for murdering Jews so long ago. This was when Patrick Buchanan publicly denounced the OSI for “running down 70-year-old camp guards.” In 1987, after five years of legal maneuvering, Linnas was finally expelled from the country after the United States Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. The evidence of his crimes was overwhelming, and he would finally face justice in his homeland, where he died in prison awaiting a new trial. But for 35 years, this mass murderer had lived happily in the United States.
The most intriguing part of Citizen 865 is Cenziper’s detailed account of the discovery of Trawniki, a special camp in Poland where Nazis trained Ukrainians and other Eastern European collaborators, as well as Germans, to be camp guards and executioners. About six thousand Jews were taken to the camp, where the Trawniki men guarded them before German soldiers shot them. Trawniki men violently liquidated Jewish ghettos across occupied Poland, participated in mass shooting operations, guarded Jews in killing centers and concentration camps, and helped the German army and SS complete the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. They exterminated the last Jews of Lublin, shooting some on the spot and supervising the murders of the rest in the gas chambers at Belzec.
Much of Citizen 865 focuses on the decade-long prosecution of Jakob Reimer, a German-speaking Soviet soldier, who, after being captured by the German Army, became an enthusiastic leader of the murderers trained at Trawniki. At the Trawniki camp, his identification number was 865. Trawniki men helped round up Jews during “Operation Harvest Festival” — cynically named for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. After German soldiers shot most of the Jews, the Trawniki men killed stragglers and then the laborers after they were forced to burn the bodies of their fellow Jews. Reimer was involved in all of this. He was also in Lublin when the ghetto was liquidated and more than 43,000 Jewish children, women, and men were murdered.
Reimer claimed he was only a clerk at Trawniki, and that he held that job only to save his own life. But, in fact, he was a leader at Trawniki, and the Nazis rewarded him for his enthusiastic and exemplary service in perpetrating the Holocaust. Toward the end of the war, the Reich gave him full German citizenship, which would allow him to disappear into the postwar German population.
Despite his Nazi past, Reimer — Trawniki man 865 — managed to charm his way into the United States after the war, convincing immigration officials that even though the Nazis rewarded him with full German citizenship, he had nothing to do with the work of the Nazi regime. For more than four decades, he lived in peace and prosperity in the United States, adamantly denying his past deeds. In the early 1990s, the OSI moved against him with overwhelming evidence of his criminal past and his dishonesty in applying for US citizenship. Cenziper brilliantly retells the story of how lawyers and historians unraveled his lies, with the help of some survivors of Reimer’s atrocities.
Yet, despite the indisputable evidence, Judge Lawrence McKenna, who President George H. W. Bush had recently put on the federal bench, was sympathetic to Reimer. At one point, he asked the prosecutor: “I don’t suppose that I can convince you to leave this poor old man alone?” It is hard to imagine how a sitting federal judge could not only ignore the lies Reimer told US officials and the mountain of evidence of his crimes against humanity, but also seek to protect him.
McKenna sat on the case, refusing to order Reimer’s denaturalization, which would lead to his expulsion from the United States, but also refusing to reject the overwhelming evidence of Reimer’s crimes and declare him a free man. Apparently, despite the evidence, McKenna just did not want to denaturalize this “poor old man.”
In 2002, however, after years of waiting, McKenna suddenly acted, taking away Reimer’s citizenship. This had finally set him up for deportation. What had changed? According to Cenziper, the decision came down shortly after a friend of one of the Nazi hunters in the OSI had made a “discreet phone call to a reporter at the Wall Street Journal.” A back-channel threat of exposure for his refusal to do his job, and for protecting a Nazi murderer, finally led McKenna to expel Reimer. Judge McKenna was seemingly willing to ignore the requirements of American law to protect a war criminal, but he apparently lacked the courage to have his behavior exposed in a major newspaper.
Woven throughout this book are biographical vignettes and stories of those who exposed Nazis hiding in the United States. These include lawyers like Eli Rosenbaum, who famously debated Patrick Buchanan on television; Jonathan Drimmer, who argued cases at trial and on appeal; Michael Bernstein, who died on Pan Am flight 103 after negotiating with the Austrian government to accept deported war criminals; Neal Sher, the director of the OSI; and Ned Stutman, who oversaw the denaturalization investigations of Reimer and the notorious John Demjanjuk. Dedicated government lawyers, they were attacked by American politicians like Meese and Buchanan, and dealt with frustrating government bureaucrats in Germany, Austria, the former Soviet Bloc, and the United States.
Equally important were PhD historians who provided the evidence the Justice Department needed. Charles Sydnor, a senior scholar of the Nazi period, served as an expert witness for the OSI and, along with other scholars, helped convince a court to denaturalize the sadistic camp guard Demjanjuk. Survivors of Treblinka identified him as being “Ivan the Terrible,” a particularly sadistic guard at that camp. But these eyewitnesses, relying on memories that were a half century old, were wrong. Demjanjuk had never been at Treblinka, and initially it appeared he would be able to remain in the United States. But the historians for OSI, using documents provided “clear, convincing and unequivocal evidence” that Demjanjuk had in fact been a Trawniki man who participated in mass murder at the Sobibor extermination camp, as well as serving in the notorious concentration camps at Majdanek and Flossenbürg. He was not “Ivan the Terrible” of Treblinka, but the historians showed that he was “Ivan the slightly less terrible of Sobibor,” an extermination camp where at least 167,000 people (other estimates are as high as 250,000) were murdered. After his denaturalization he was extradited to Germany, where he was convicted of war crimes and died while his case was on appeal.
Working full-time at OSI itself were two improbably named historians: Dr. Black and Dr. White (Peter Black and Elizabeth White). They traveled to Europe, finding evidence against Nazis hiding in the United States. One of the few humorous moments in this book recounts their visit to the Czech archives. Meeting their communist Czech counterparts and explaining that they were there to investigate Nazi war criminals in the United States, Black said: “I am Dr. Black and this is Dr. White.” As Cenziper notes: “The officers smirked at the names, and Black had no doubt that they suspected he and White were spies. He nearly chuckled himself, imagining what the frowning officers were thinking. The CIA has no imagination.”
Black, White, and other historians diligently found the records, discovered and documented the existence of the Trawniki training camp, exposed the murders at that camp, and provided the evidence that Trawniki men, who Reimer trained and led, murdering Jews at Treblinka, Lublin, and elsewhere. They found the records of Reimer’s four years of service for the SS, during which he both trained killers and participated in the killings.
This part of Cenziper’s book underscores the value of academics, specialists in history and other fields, who provide the knowledge — the facts — that allows us to understand the past. We study this history to avoid repeating past mistakes, to provide justice for the dead by punishing the living criminals, and to explain to the next generation how something like the Holocaust could have happened. This history provides a warning, in our own time, to those who decline to confront antisemitism, racism, and other forms of dehumanizing hatred.
Woven in this book is also the history of Feliks and Lucyna Wojcik, who miraculously survived the war and were among the very few Jews from Lublin alive when peace came. In 1939, Lublin’s 43,000 Jews constituted one third of the city’s population. Only the Wojciks and a few others were alive in 1945. About two thirds of the city’s Jews were deported to death camps or killed in other ways. Trawniki men, some of whom were led by Reimer, participated in the final destruction of Lublin’s Jewish community. In 1950, the Wojciks came to the United States, settling in Rochester, New York, where Feliks practiced medicine. Two years later, Jakob Reimer, brazenly lying to immigration officials, came to the United States as a “refugee.”
The story of the Feliks and Lucyna puts a human face to the horrors of the Holocaust, even as we stand in awe of their strength, wits, and good luck in surviving. Feliks was a medical student in 1939 and finished his education after the war. He spent 50 years healing patients in the United States. Both Feliks and Lucyna died in 2013, after 71 years of marriage. They lived long enough to witness some of their tormentors — the murderers among us — be deported. In 2018, one more Nazi criminal, Jakiw Palij, was deported. But, as Cenziper notes, the business of hunting war criminals continues. OSI is now part of the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section of the Domestic Security Section of the Department of Justice. As murderers from Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Rwanda, Darfur, and elsewhere try to cleanse their past and pretend to be refugees, the “new unit is as busy as ever.”
This powerful book reminds us that hateful jargon and slogans can lead to murder and genocide. But it is also a hopeful book about the power of knowing history and the rule of law. The outcome — that some of the murderers still among us were exposed and deported — reminds us of the truth of the admonition of the prophet Amos: “But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
Dr. Paul Finkelman is the president of Gratz College in greater Philadelphia. He is also a historian, whose most recent book, Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court, was published by Harvard University Press in 2018.
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