WASHINGTON/BERLIN (Reuters) - A 95-year old New York City man believed to be a former guard at a labour camp in Nazi-occupied Poland has arrived in Germany after being arrested and deported by U.S. immigration authorities, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
The White House said Jakiw Palij had served as a guard at the Trawniki Labor Camp, where about 6,000 Jewish men, women and children were shot dead on Nov. 3, 1943, in one of the single largest massacres of the Holocaust.
The United States had been trying to get Palij out of the country since the issue of a 2004 deportation order, but after talks with top members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government Germany agreed to take him in.
Palij was taken to a home for the elderly in the western town of Ahlen, some 130 kilometres northeast of Dusseldorf.
Born in what was then Poland but is now Ukraine, Palij emigrated to the United States in 1949, becoming a United States citizen eight years later, the White House said.
But, it added, he had concealed his Nazi service and involvement in human rights abuses, saying he had spent World War Two working on a farm and in a factory.
In 2001, Palij told Department of Justice officials that he had trained at the Nazi SS Training Camp in Trawniki, in German-occupied Poland, in 1943, the White House said.
“By serving as an armed guard ... and preventing the escape of Jewish prisoner during his Nazi service, Palij played an indispensable role in ensuring the Trawniki Jewish victims met their horrific fate at the hands of the Nazis,” the White House said.
A federal judge revoked his U.S. citizenship in 2003 and he was ordered to be deported in 2004. But no European country would accept him, CNN and New York magazine reported.
Given his age and questions over his health and also a possible lack of proof, it is unclear whether German authorities will attempt to prosecute the stateless pensioner.
“In Germany, being a member of a criminal organisation like the (Nazi) SS is not enough to be prosecuted. Even being trained at a camp is not sufficient,” said Jens Rommel, Germany’s top Nazi hunter. “The participation in or facilitation of a murder must be proven.”
The U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, said the deportation was the result of a concerted effort by U.S. President Donald Trump.
“He (Trump) told me directly to make it a priority, to get the Nazi out,” Grenell told reporters. “I felt very strongly that the German government had a moral obligation and they accepted that,” he added, making clear it was up to Germany to decide whether to prosecute him.
Germany has a mixed record on convicting Nazi war criminals. Critics say it let many high-ranking Nazis and SS members escaped justice only for their juniors, small cogs in the Nazi death machine, to be put on trial decades later.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who on Monday visited the Auschwitz camp, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:
“Germany, in whose name the worst injustice was perpetrated under the Nazis, is confronting its moral obligations.”
After an international military tribunal put some top Nazi leaders, including Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess, on trial soon after World War Two in the Nuremburg Trials, little action was taken by the West German judiciary in the 1950s and 1960s.
Between 1945 and 2005, West German courts convicted 6,656 Nazi criminals out of more than 36,000 investigations into more than 170,000 suspects, a study showed in 2008.
Germany’s Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Ludwigsburg is still investigating individuals after the 2011 conviction of Sobibor death camp guard John Demjanjuk gave it a new impetus. It was the first time involvement in a camp was sufficient to be found culpable even without proof of a specific crime.
“There are currently no preliminary proceedings in Germany and there is no arrest warrant,” said Rommel, who heads the office. “We therefore have to wait (to see) whether there will be a new evaluation or whether new evidence appears to underpin the suspicion ... In the case of Palij we are unable to prove where, when and which unit he was in after his training.”
Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Richard Balmforth and David Holmes