Decades on, former Nazi camp guard deported to Germany from US

The US Department of Justice released a photo taken in 1957 of Jakiw Palij, who illegally concealed his Nazi past from US immigration agents. (AFP pic)

BERLIN: Germany, citing its “moral duty”, on Tuesday took in a 95-year-old former guard at a Nazi labour camp where more than 6,000 people were killed, after he was stripped of his US citizenship.

The German foreign ministry said it had agreed to accept the former Ukraine national Jakiw Palij following his expulsion from the United States late Monday, saying Berlin felt obliged to accept him in light of the Nazis’ crimes.

“The United States had repeatedly pressed for Germany to take in Palij,” the ministry said. Berlin, however, had long resisted because he was not a German citizen.

“The US administration, senators, members of Congress and representatives of the Jewish community in the United States stress that people who served the rogue Nazi regime should not be able to live out their twilight years in peace in their country of choice, the United States,” the ministry added.

Berlin also appeared to be making a diplomatic gesture against the backdrop of major transatlantic tensions over trade and defence spending, on a case the White House described as a “high priority”.

Palij concealed his Nazi past from immigration agents when he moved to the United States in 1949, the US Justice Department said. He became American in 1957.

Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, praised the “perseverance and dedication” of US authorities in their efforts to have Palij removed.

No US ‘safe haven’
The White House said in a statement that President Donald Trump had “prioritised” the removal of Palij “to protect the promise of freedom for Holocaust survivors and their families”.

German media reports said Palij arrived early Tuesday at Duesseldorf airport and was to be taken to a care home.

German prosecutors had opened a criminal investigation against Palij in 2015 but closed the case for lack of evidence.

Although Germany has put several aged former Nazi guards on trial in recent years for crimes committed during the Holocaust, the head of the Central Office for Investigation of Nazi Crimes, Jens Rommel, told AFP it was unlikely he would be prosecuted.

“Nothing has changed in terms of the evidence just because he has been transferred here,” he said.

Washington had tried for several years to expel Palij, who had lived in Queens, New York since 1949.

Palij, who was born in what was then Poland and is now Ukraine, admitted to federal officials in 2001 that he was trained as a Nazi guard in spring 1943, the Justice Department said.

A federal judge revoked Pajil’s US citizenship in August 2003 and the following year, a US immigration judge ordered his deportation to Ukraine, Poland, Germany or any other country that would admit him. It would take another 14 years of US diplomatic efforts before Berlin consented.

‘A single, nightmarish day’
In court documents, the US government said men who trained at Trawniki participated in implementing the Third Reich’s plan to murder Jews in Poland, code-named “Operation Reinhard”.

On November 3, 1943, more than 6,000 men, women and children imprisoned at Trawniki were shot to death in one of the largest single massacres of the Holocaust.

“During a single nightmarish day in November 1943, all of the more than 6,000 prisoners of the Nazi camp that Jakiw Palij had guarded were systematically butchered,” Eli Rosenbaum, then director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, said at the time.

“By helping to prevent the escape of these prisoners, Palij played an indispensable role in ensuring that they met their tragic fate at the hands of the Nazis.”

The US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who has clashed repeatedly with Berlin officials over policy differences since his arrival in May, welcomed Palij’s arrival and thanked German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas for his efforts.

“He and Secretary (Mike) Pompeo worked very closely and he brought some new and different energy to this issue,” Grenell said.

“We brought it up very regularly… with every person that we met,” he added.

The last alleged Nazi war criminal deported by the US to Germany was John Demjanjuk, who served as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in occupied Poland, in 2009.

A German court sentenced him to five years in prison in 2011. He died the next year.