US retiree, 89, faces charges of Auschwitz mass murder

Johann Breyer, a guard at the Nazi death camp, is fighting extradition

In 1951, a guard of the Third Reich’s most notorious death camp arrived in the United States. After breezing through immigration, he settled into a small town house near Pennypack Park in Philadelphia, where neighbours came to know him as “Hans”.

He found work as a tool and die maker at an engineering company in nearby Fort Washington, where he worked for 32 years. He raised three children, retired at 66 and settled into a drama-free existence.

But his past has caught up with him. On Wednesday Johann Breyer, now 89, hobbled into a Philadelphia courtroom charged with 158 counts of “complicity in the commission of murder”.

He is accused of the “systematic murder of hundreds of thousands of European Jews, transported between May 1944 and October 1944 in 158 trainloads to Auschwitz”.

Federal court documents filed in Philadelphia say: “Approximately 216,000 Jewish men, women and children from Hungary, Germany and Czechoslovakia [were] transported by these trains.” Prosecutors consider each trainload of Jews taken to their eventual deaths as a count of complicity in murder.

Mr Breyer was arrested on Tuesday, one year after a German court charged him and asked for his extradition. If the request is granted he will be the oldest person extradited from the US to face allegations of Nazi crimes. On Friday, Gerd Schaefer, the lead prosecutor in the German town of Weiden, whose office is leading the investigation, said Mr Breyer would have the opportunity to fight the extradition request in the US. Mr Schaefer said the arrest had been delayed because of the complexity of the extradition request.

A note on his door in 2012 asks people seeking a comment to leave A note on his door in 2012 asks people seeking a comment to leave Mr Breyer denies culpability, claiming ignorance of the executions at Auschwitz, where more than one million Jews were killed. “Not the slightest idea, never, never, ever,” Mr Breyer told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1992. “All I know is from the television. What was happening at the camps, it never came up at that time.” He added in a 2012 interview: “I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t rape anybody… I didn’t do anything wrong.”

However, prosecutors say his presence at Auschwitz is enough to merit extradition. “He is charged with aiding and abetting those deaths,” said the Assistant US Attorney, Andrea Foulkes. “Proof doesn’t require him personally to have pulled any levers. His guarding made it possible for the killings to happen.”

Mr Breyer was born on 30 May 1925, into a community of ethnic German farmers living in what was then Czechoslovakia. His mother, born in Philadelphia, placed him in a German school. In November 1942, it was announced locally that the SS was looking for recruits. Most ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia ignored the request without consequence, the indictment alleges, but not Mr Breyer.

By early 1943, he had arrived at Auschwitz, still a teenager, where he  allegedly became a member of the Nazi SS “Death’s Head” battalion. In the next year, 216,000 Jews arrived by train and “were exterminated upon arrival,” the indictment says. “They were taken from the train ramp by armed Death’s Head guards directly to the gas chambers for extermination. The armed Death’s Head guards were under orders to shoot to kill anyone who tried to escape.”

Prisoners at Auschwitz where Breyer worked Prisoners at Auschwitz where Breyer worked US army intelligence documents reviewed by the Associated Press show Mr Breyer was a member of the unit until as late as 29 December 1944, weeks before Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Union. Mr Breyer claims to have deserted the camp four months earlier.

The courtroom drama has been decades in the making. The Department of Justice first accused Mr Breyer of Nazi crimes in 1992 and tried to deport him. But in 2003 a federal court allowed him to stay on the grounds of US citizenship derived from his mother’s origins. It also ruled that because he was 17 when he enlisted with the Nazis, he could not be blamed for the atrocities.

But the conviction of an Ohio man in Munich in 2011 changed the situation. Prosecutors were able to have John Demjanjuk, nicknamed Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka, convicted on the grounds that guards were just as guilty of murder as those pulling levers in gas chambers.

Mr Breyer, whose bail was denied, is fighting extradition. Another US court hearing is scheduled for August. (Washington Post)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
News
i100
Sport
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Sport
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?