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
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
science
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before