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.
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.”
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)