The last Nazi war crimes suspect facing deportation from the US has been extradited to Germany, 25 years after investigators learned he was living in New York.
Former concentration camp guard Jakiw Palij, 95, was taken from his home and flown to Dusseldorf early on Tuesday morning after years of diplomatic wrangling.
Palij fled to the US following the Second World War, claiming to immigration officials upon arrival in 1949 that he had worked as a farmer in his native Poland.
He concealed his past as a “willing helper” to Nazi Germany’s notorious SS paramilitary wing at Trawniki, a forced labour camp in occupied Poland where at least 12,000 Jews were murdered during the Second World War.
Palij quietly lived in US as a draftsman and then retiree, until investigators found his name on an old Nazi roster and a fellow former guarded tipped them off that he was living in America.
He told US Justice Department officials who showed up at his door in 1993: “I would never have received my visa if I told the truth. Everyone lied.”
A judge stripped him of his US citizenship in 2003 for “participation in acts against Jewish civilians” while an armed guard at Trawniki.
A court ordered Palij’s deportation the next year, but he continued to live in limbo in New York for 14 years because Germany, Poland and other countries refused to take him.
His continued presence in Queens, where he shared a two-story house with 86-year-old wife Maria, outraged the Jewish community and drew frequent protests over the years, with demonstrators often shouting ”your neighbour is a Nazi”.
According to the Justice Department, Palij worked at Trawniki in 1943, the year 6,000 prisoners at the camp were rounded up and shot in one of the largest single massacres of the Holocaust.
“By serving as an armed guard at the Trawniki labour camp and preventing the escape of Jewish prisoners during his Nazi service, Palij played an indispensable role in ensuring that the Trawniki Jewish victims met their horrific fate at the hands of the Nazis,” said the White House in a statement announcing his deportation.
Palij has admitted serving in Trawniki but denied any involvement in war crimes.
Last September, all 29 members of New York’s congressional delegation signed a letter urging the State Department to push through his deportation.
Richard Grenell, the US ambassador who arrived in Germany earlier this year, said President Donald Trump – who is from New York – instructed him to make the issue a priority. He added the new German government, which took office in March, brought “new energy” to the matter.
The ambassador told reporters that there were “difficult conversations” because Palij is not a German citizen and was stateless after losing his US citizenship, but “the moral obligation” of taking in “someone who served in the name of the German government was accepted.”
It is unclear what will happen next, as German prosecutors have previously said there appeared to be insufficient evidence to charge Palij with war crimes.
Germany’s foreign ministry said it was “sending a clear signal of Germany’s moral responsibility by taking in Palij” but gave no details on where he would be taken after his arrival in Dusseldorf.
Local media reported Palij was being put in a long-term care facility near the city of Muenster.
Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi-hunter at Jewish human rights organisation the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, said he hoped prosecutors would revisit the case.
“Trawniki was a camp where people were trained to round up and murder the Jews in Poland, so there’s certainly a basis for some sort of prosecution,” he said, adding that the US Justice Department ”deserves a lot of credit” for sticking with the case.
“The efforts invested by the United States in getting Palij deported are really noteworthy and I’m very happy to see that they finally met with success,” he added.
Palij entered the US in 1949 under the Displaced Persons Act, a law meant to help refugees from post-war Europe.
He told immigration officials he was employed during the war as a woodworker, a farmer and a factory worker. He said he had never served in the military.
In reality, officials say, he played an essential role in the Nazi programme to exterminate Jews in German-occupied Poland.
According to the Justice Department, Palij served in a unit that “committed atrocities against Polish civilians and others” and then in the notorious SS Streibel Battalion, “a unit whose function was to round up and guard thousands of Polish civilian forced labourers”.
After the war, Palij maintained friendships with other Nazi guards who came to the US under similar false pretences. In a coincidental twist, he and his wife purchased their home near LaGuardia airport in 1966 from a Polish Jewish couple who had survived the Holocaust and were unaware of his past.
The Justice Department’s special Nazi-hunting unit started piecing together Palij’s past after a fellow Trawniki guard identified him to Canadian authorities in 1989.
Officials confronted him in 1993 but it was not until a second interview in 2001 that he signed a document acknowledging he had been a guard at Trawniki and a member of the Streibel Battalion.
Palij claimed at one point during the interview that he was threatened with death if he refused to work as a guard, saying: “If you don’t show up, boom boom.”
He is the first Nazi war crimes suspect to be deported since Germany agreed in 2009 to take John Demjanjuk, a retired Ohio mechanic who was accused of serving as a concentration camp guard.
The Ukrainian-American was convicted in 2011 of being an accessory to more than 28,000 killings and died 10 months later, aged 91, with his appeal pending.
Although Palij was the last Nazi suspect in the US with an outstanding deportation order, others remain in the country.
Since 2017, Poland has been seeking the extradition of Ukrainian-born Michael Karkoc, an ex-commander in an SS-led unit which burned Polish villages and killed civilians during the war.
The 99-year-old, who currently lives in Minneapolis, was the subject of a series of 2013 reports by the Associated Press that led Polish prosecutors to issue an arrest warrant for him.
Earlier this year, US authorities requested opinions from medical experts on whether Karkoc was healthy enough to travel by plane and take part in a court trial.
In addition to Karkoc, there are almost certainly other Nazis in the US who have not yet been identified or investigated by authorities.
Some estimates put the number of Nazis who fled to the US after the Second World War at 10,000.
The Justice Department has initiated legal proceedings against 137 suspects, with 67 of those being removed by deportation, extradition or voluntary departure.
Of the rest, 28 died while their cases were pending and nine were ordered to leave but died in the US because no other country was willing to take them.
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