The Nazis and the Trawniki Men

How a team of prosecutors and historians uncovered the details behind an SS training camp in occupied Poland — and exposed Nazi collaborators hiding in plain sight in America.
Jakob “Jack” Reimer, who served at a Nazi training camp during World War II, and his personnel sheet that listed his deployments. (Courtesy of Department of Justice)
New York City, 1992

Nazi recruit 865 ducked into the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, rode the elevator to the seventh floor and sat down in a hushed conference room, where three federal prosecutors were waiting. He smiled, a practiced smile, the smile of an old friend. Tufts of silver hair were combed neatly over his ears, and a mustache grown long ago straddled a thin upper lip. He was lean from years of careful eating and late nights spent in the dance halls of Munich after the war.

“Ready?” one of the lawyers asked.

He nodded, clear-eyed and steady, and raised his right hand. “I affirm to tell the truth.”

His Eastern European accent had softened over the years, and the words sounded lyrical, a light and mellow promise. He was an obliging helper who had come when he was called, traveling all this way from a modest frame house on the shoreline of Lake Carmel, 60 miles upstate, where retirement waited on a spit of a beach and in the faded blue dinghies that bobbed along the water.

Even his name was benign, shortened to three quick beats decades earlier when he had stood before an American flag and vowed to defend the Constitution. Jakob Reimer, the newest citizen of the United States, had given himself a new name. Jack.

From across the table, Eli Rosenbaum managed a slight smile. At the U.S. Department of Justice, Rosenbaum had investigated and prosecuted dozens of Nazi perpetrators, concentration camp guards and police leaders who had slipped into the United States with bogus stories about war years spent on farms and in factories, far removed from the killing squads and annihilation centers of occupied Europe.

Reimer, too, had lied with ease, hiding in plain sight in middle-class America. And now he had American sons and an American wife, a church, a Social Security card, a two-story house in the hamlet of Lake Carmel, population 8,000. Time had been good to Reimer, every new year, every new decade providing distance from a loaded rifle and a uniform bearing the stripes of a first sergeant.

But Rosenbaum knew better. Seven stories above Manhattan, 4,000 miles from Poland and 47 years after the end of the war, the prosecutor studied the 73-year-old retired potato chip salesman sitting before him — quite certain that he had been part of one of the most diabolical operations in the Holocaust.

From left: Eli Rosenbaum, a prosecutor with the Office of Special Investigations; Peter Black, a historian in the OSI. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post; Miriam Lomaskin/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Washington, 1988

Four years earlier, on a late December afternoon, World War II historian Peter Black sat alone at his desk at the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), a unit within the criminal division of the Justice Department charged with identifying, investigating and prosecuting Nazi war criminals found in the United States. It was a dreary month in Washington, with frigid winds and nights that fell long before dinner. Black was lost in thought when OSI attorney Bruce Einhorn knocked on the door, clutching a slip of paper. “Take a look at this,” he said to Black. “Something came in.”

Black looked over the single page from top to bottom, once then twice. Einhorn had found cable traffic between the U.S. Department of State and the Soviet Foreign Ministry. Back in 1980, someone at OSI had asked the Soviets for records relating to New York businessman Jakob Reimer, whose name had turned up during the investigation of high-profile defendant John Demjanjuk. After living in the United States for more than three decades, Demjanjuk had been stripped of his U.S. citizenship and extradited to Israel. (At the time, it was thought he had served in the Treblinka killing center in occupied Poland; later, OSI discovered he had instead served at the killing center Sobibor, as well as two other camps. Demjanjuk fought the charges until his death in 2012.)

Records in that case had placed both Reimer and Demjanjuk in the tiny Polish village of Trawniki, where, on the grounds of an abandoned sugar factory, the SS in the early years of the war had set up a training camp for police auxiliaries. Two OSI lawyers went to question Reimer about it, but the matter was quickly closed after Reimer insisted that he had never known Demjanjuk and had only served in a mundane role in Trawniki’s administrative offices. Now Black was intrigued.

“What did the file say?” Einhorn asked.

Black held up his hands. “What the hell did we do with the file?”

There was no easy way to look for it since OSI had no computers. Black and Einhorn dug through boxes and cabinets. Nothing. Black decided to ask the Soviets to resend the file, which meant following tedious channels: a request from the State Department to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and then on to Soviet agencies and archives. He had no idea how long it might take, if the file was even sent at all. But he had seen references to the training camp at Trawniki before, a pattern too suspicious to ignore.

Historians had described how the SS recruited Eastern European civilians as well as Soviet soldiers who had been captured and sent to German prisoner-of-war camps. At Trawniki, they were trained and then deployed across occupied Poland for brutal deportation operations in Jewish ghettos and for work in Nazi-run labor camps and killing centers.

But so much about Trawniki was not yet understood: the mission, the strategy, the training process, the scope of its role in Operation Reinhard, the secret plan to exploit and murder the Jews of occupied Poland. Did some men staff the killing centers while others stayed behind? Were some men exclusively cooks, paymasters or waiters, and others guards or killers? Black wasn’t certain. What was clear was that the Germans had managed to annihilate 1.7 million Jews in fewer than 20 months, the span of two Polish summers, an unprecedented and comprehensive mass murder operation.

Black had read an infamous report that SS leader Odilo Globocnik had submitted to Heinrich Himmler in 1944. A fanatical Nazi who planned and implemented Operation Reinhard, Globocnik had ordered the recruitment and training of Trawniki men. His report to Himmler was horrifying, but the words were as sterile as a bank ledger’s. “The evacuation of Jews,” Globocnik wrote, “has been carried out and completed. The requirement here was to seize the people by means of a methodically correct procedure, with the weak forces available, reducing to a minimum economic damage to war production. In general, the operation was successful.”

The report included an accounting of the assets collected from the dead, worth 180 billion Reichsmark. Grand larceny on a massive scale, Black thought as he studied the numbers:

236 gold bars

Nearly 400,000 gold coins

2,134 silver bars

More than 60,000 watches

1,900 freight-car loads of textiles

Nearly 16,000 gold and diamond rings

1,716 pairs of gold earrings studded with diamonds

3,240 coin purses

627 pairs of sunglasses

350 electric razors

41 silver cigarette cases

Paper foreign currency from the United States, Canada, France, Brazil, Turkey, Switzerland, South Africa, Egypt, Argentina, Paraguay, Sweden, Palestine, Cuba, and Albania

The mass murder of Jews and an untold number of Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and Polish civilians, along with the sorting and cataloguing of their assets, would have required a highly organized operation and the participation of thousands of personnel. A small army of foot soldiers. Exactly how had Trawniki played a role? How did the SS convince a mass of largely uneducated recruits who came from different places and didn’t necessarily speak German to function as a cohesive unit, day after day, month after month? The answers, Black suspected, likely sat behind lock and key in Soviet and Eastern European archives.

He wanted to know more. Besides Demjanjuk and Reimer, three other Trawniki men had been found on U.S. soil. In two of the cases, Trawniki had been more of a supporting fact, a tool the government used to successfully link the men to deployments at the Treblinka killing center and forced-labor camp, where daily horrors had been well documented by historians. In the third case, however, OSI had set aside its inquiry when the Massachusetts man told investigators that he had worked merely as a server in the canteen at Trawniki. And then there was Reimer, who had also denied any role in SS persecution.

In early January 1989, Black wrote up a buck slip, a yellow 5-by-8-inch slip of paper with notes, and attached the Soviet cable that Bruce Einhorn had found. Black sent it to OSI’s Eli Rosenbaum, requesting to reopen the investigation against the mysterious Jakob Reimer.

Trawniki men stand over bodies of the dead in the Warsaw ghetto. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Months later, Reimer’s personnel file arrived from an archive in Ukraine, with a round seal and a Soviet stamp. A photo of a young Reimer, with cropped black hair and a smile that could have passed for a scowl, was attached to the three-page file. Black scanned the heading: Personalbogen Nr. 865.

From Reimer’s immigration paperwork, Black knew that Reimer had been born in 1918 in a Mennonite settlement in the Ukrainian countryside, north of the Black Sea, where thousands of ethnic Germans known as Volksdeutsche had settled in the 18th and 19th centuries. Reimer had been drafted into the Red Army at the start of the war and received a commission as a second lieutenant before his platoon was captured by German soldiers in July 1941 near Minsk, Belarus, not far from the interwar eastern Polish border.

Three million Soviet soldiers died in German POW camps. But the Germans considered Volksdeutsche valuable racial stock and Baltic nationals and Ukrainians, perceived to hold strong anti-Soviet sentiments, reliable recruits for managing land that the Germans planned to conquer. In the late summer of 1941, the SS selected Reimer from among the captured Soviet soldiers and sent him to Trawniki.

The personnel sheet sent by the Soviets was dated Sept. 3, 1941. Black noted that Reimer had been stationed at Trawniki for at least three years and had been promoted to the level of a noncommissioned officer, part of the Trawniki elite, likely because of his German-language skills. Black had seen the details before. In 1944, Reimer had applied for citizenship in Nazi Germany and had mentioned his service at Trawniki on the application to the Germans. OSI had received a copy from a repository for Nazi documents in Berlin.

Black moved on, reviewing the back of the personnel sheet sent by the Soviets. It contained a service oath that Reimer had pledged to the SS and police.

I herewith declare that I am obligating myself for service in the guard detachments of the Commissioner of the Reichsführer-SS and Chief of the German Police for the Establishment of SS and Police Bases in the Newly Occupied Eastern Territory.

The oath did not surprise Black either. Another Trawniki man found in the Chicago area years earlier had signed the same pledge.

Black scanned the dates and deployments listed in the file. Reimer had been deployed on at least two critical missions. In September 1942, according to the file, Reimer was assigned to Detachment Czestochowa. Black paused, remembering. That month, SS and police units in the Polish city deported 40,000 Jews to their deaths at Treblinka. Reimer had returned to Trawniki, but on April 19, 1943, he left again, this time deployed to Warsaw. On that day, desperate Jewish residents rose in armed resistance against German forces brought in to liquidate the ghetto.

If Reimer had played an innocuous role in camp administration at Trawniki, Black saw no sign of it. He pulled out Reimer’s immigration file, compiled by U.S. authorities before Reimer settled in New York City in 1952. Black scanned the visa application, searching for a mention of Trawniki.

But Reimer had said nothing about the camp. Instead, he told U.S. officials that he had been drafted into the Soviet armed forces, captured by the Germans and made to work as an interpreter at a sawmill and then in work camps along Poland’s Vistula River. It had been a plausible story until investigators from the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps found that Reimer had been granted citizenship in Nazi Germany in 1944. U.S. investigators called him for an interview and, because Reimer had listed the camp on his German citizenship application, asked him about Trawniki. He easily brushed aside the reference.

SUBJECT stated that he had been assigned to a guard company near TRAWNIKI and that his supervisor officer was a member of the SS. He claimed that he was never integrated into an SS unit, but was assigned as a paymaster in the guard company.

Reimer added his own statement about his work at the camp. “We were told that we were civilians,” he wrote. “I never was taken over by SS.”

He was approved for entry in the United States, in part, Black knew, because an American Red Cross supervisor in Germany had described Reimer as an “honest and dependable” person who would “make a good American citizen,” and, in part, because U.S. immigration authorities in 1951 had little information about Trawniki. Now OSI could refute Reimer’s claim that he had served only in the Trawniki administration. Reimer, it appeared, had been deployed to at least two ghettos at the exact same time that tens of thousands of Jews were being rounded up for deportation to the Treblinka killing center or shot on the spot. “Oh my,” Black told Einhorn as he recounted Reimer’s lies. “We have a case.”

Prague, 1990

It was nearing midnight, and Black could scarcely make out the rambling rows of shops and houses hidden in the darkness. The night was quiet — no people, no car engines — and the silence was an eerie sort, a restless city struggling to shake the past, moving toward something that wasn’t yet clear.

Black was jet-lagged and hungry. Along with Elizabeth “Barry” White — the only female historian in the OSI — and two other OSI historians, he had landed in Frankfurt and driven due east across Germany in a temperamental stick shift that had wheezed and grunted for 500 dusty kilometers. They crossed the border into Czechoslovakia and eased into Prague to settle in the rental apartment they would share during their visit.

The next morning, the four historians set out on an ancient city bus for Prague’s military archives. Black had waited years for this day. Unlike Poland’s government, the Communist government in Czechoslovakia had always summarily rejected research requests from OSI. For the first time, Black would learn the secrets that the Third Reich had hidden in Czechoslovakia at war’s end, tucked inside caches of Nazi rosters and records.

The bus pulled up in front of the military archives, a grand building just outside Prague’s business district with a sprawling courtyard behind the entryway. The historians were shown to a file room. Ten hours passed quickly as they looked over hundreds of documents, randomly stuffed inside boxes and folders. They came away with a few scraps of information, including SS investigative reports of concentration camp shootings, with black-and-white sketches of prisoners who had been shot trying to escape over a barbed-wire fence.

Several days passed with no significant finds. Then, on their last day in Prague, Black arranged for a visit to the archive of the Federal Ministry of the Interior. Outside the apartment block, a government sedan pulled up, and Black and White ducked inside. Black glanced silently at the Czech security agents in the front seat, pistols latched to their hips. The sedan crept out of the city, driving past the boxy, Soviet-era cars that crowded the narrow streets.

Rosenbaum had investigated and prosecuted dozens of Nazi perpetrators who had slipped into the United States with bogus stories about war years spent on farms and in factories.

At the ministry, the sedan pulled into a cobblestone alleyway hidden behind a wooden gate. Black and White were shown to a drafty stone room in the basement that smelled of dust and old cardboard. They were given a long list of the records managed by the ministry, random documents about German employees in France and people who had worked for the puppet state of Slovakia, for the SS, and for police units in Poland.

Several hours later, White stood up. In a faded yellow folder, she had recognized a name. “What do you make of this?” she asked, standing over Black’s shoulder. He studied the first page, scanning dozens of names and Erkennungsmarken, German military identification numbers. The second page had dozens more. There was a date at the top, 1945, and the name that had caught White’s attention: SS Battalion Streibel. Karl Streibel had been the commandant of the Trawniki training camp.

Black read the headings across the top of the page: Dienstgrad, Name,, Soldbuch Nr. (Rank, Name, Born on, Identification number.) He was looking at a roster with the names of men who had served in the battalion as it retreated across Poland during the summer and fall of 1944, waging operations against partisan resistance movements and guarding Polish civilians forced to dig antitank trenches. Each man had a rank, an identification number and an assignment; some documents listed birth dates, most between 1915 and 1925. The names were Ukrainian, ethnic German, Lithuanian, Russian, Polish.

Black studied the pages carefully. He stopped short when he saw the name of the Trawniki man who had been found in Chicago, Liudas Kairys, SS identification number 1628. Black’s mind raced, dates and events flashing in quick succession. Kairys had received a promotion at Trawniki; on the roster, he was listed as an Oberwachmann, a guard corporal. The date — November 1944 — jumped off the page.

Kairys had served at the Treblinka labor camp until July 1944, when, as Soviet troops approached, the SS and their Trawniki-trained guard detachment had shot as many as 700 Jewish prisoners before dismantling the camp. Clearly, Black thought, Kairys had earned his promotion.

Black turned to another page. There was Vladas Zajanckauskas, the Trawniki man found in Massachusetts, listed on the document as a supply officer rather than a server in the Trawniki canteen, with the mundane duties that he had once described to OSI attorneys. Another lie.

He flipped back to the front of the file, to the page with Streibel’s signature. He drew in his breath. There was Jakob Reimer, identification number 865, listed with the rank of SS-Oberzugwachmann, a top sergeant — the highest rank available to a Trawniki-trained man. “Look, look,” he said to White. “Here’s Reimer.”

Black looked at the dates again. He knew from the personnel file sent by the Soviets that Reimer had been at Trawniki from 1941 to 1944. But the roster that White discovered put Reimer in SS service until 1945, which meant that he had served for nearly the entire duration of the war. No wonder the SS had granted Reimer German citizenship.

Black knew of no other guard who had served at the camp longer than Reimer and who had risen from a recruit to the highest-ranking position for a non-German SS auxiliary. Reimer was not a lowly paymaster. He had been an essential part of Trawniki, there from start to finish, among the most trusted recruits in the operation. Slowly, Black counted all the names on the roster. He sat back in his chair and looked at White. There were more than 700 men.

Reimer, accused of helping the SS liquidate three Jewish ghettos as part of his service at the Trawniki training camp, enters Federal District Court in New York in August 1998. He maintained that he was a victim of the Nazi regime. (Stan Honda/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

New York City, 1992

Would there be something in Jakob Reimer’s eyes, some hint in the way he carried himself that betrayed what he once was, a commander and a collaborator, so loyal to the SS that he had earned the promise of a future in postwar Nazi Germany? Looking at Reimer in the conference room at the U.S. attorney’s office, Eli Rosenbaum kept a level gaze.

Reimer had come from nothing, a tiny farm village in the Ukrainian countryside, but he had turned himself into an experienced and skilled leader, once as a lieutenant in the Red Army and again when he collaborated with the Germans, the very enemy he had fought against. He had disappeared easily after the war. With an angular face and thick, dark hair, Reimer blended into the immigrant community of New York City in the 1950s. He’d lived for the better part of a half-century, a salesman and a family man, complicit in the mass murder of Poland’s Jews but allowed to prosper in a country that had fought to free them.

Twice before, Reimer had insisted that he never played a role in the persecution of Poland’s Jews. Rosenbaum expected Reimer would tell a good story, how he only handled money at the Trawniki training camp, better to cooperate than to starve in a prisoner-of-war camp for captured Soviet soldiers.

But history had finally caught up to Reimer, chronicled in a detailed biographical report that Peter Black had provided before Rosenbaum — along with two other OSI prosecutors, including then-director Neal Sher — left for New York. Black’s account of Reimer’s potential role at Trawniki had been nothing less than chilling. About 5,000 Trawniki guards, instruments of death in occupied Poland, had served in the killing centers, Jewish ghettos and forced-labor camps. And Reimer had been there from the very beginning. For his service he had received promotions, vacations, service medals and German citizenship.

Reimer had been an essential part of Trawniki, among the most trusted recruits in the operation.

“I would like to have this go as smoothly as possible,” Rosenbaum said. “But I will need the truth, Mr. Reimer, all right?”

“Look, Mr. Rosenbaum,” Reimer replied. “Let me say this. My wife says to me, ‘You always preach we should love the Jewish people and you are being picked on.’ I say, ‘You got to understand. If six million Polish people were innocently killed, you would feel the same way as the Jewish people feel.’ Any way I can help, I will be glad to help.”

It was a serene dance, and Rosenbaum decided to play along. “All you have to do is tell me exactly what happened. That is how you can help, and I think you can help yourself as well.”

Rosenbaum produced Reimer’s visa application, stamped by U.S. authorities in Germany in 1952. Reimer was quiet as he studied the document, and Rosenbaum watched for flashes of fear or regret. But Reimer looked like a babysitter, not a killer.

“The Trawniki camp,” Rosenbaum said carefully, “that was an SS training camp … right?”

The interview stretched on. Under questioning, Reimer acknowledged his deployments to Czestochowa and to Warsaw. He surprised the prosecutors by adding that he had also been deployed to the devastated Jewish ghetto in Lublin, Poland, when thousands of Jews in spring 1942 were deported to the Belzec killing center. He went on to describe a single day in November 1943 when the SS and police shot as many as 6,000 Jewish prisoners in a forced-labor camp adjacent to Trawniki. Reimer also confessed to shooting at a Jewish prisoner in the woods during a mass killing operation. He insisted he had no choice; the German officers were watching.

“You finished him off,” Rosenbaum said of the doomed man.

Reimer paused. “I’m afraid so.”

Later, back in Washington, Rosenbaum found Peter Black and Barry White and recounted the confession, the first of its kind in the history of OSI. “We are going to file this case,” Rosenbaum told the historians. “And we are going to win.”

It would take another decade for that to happen. In 1998, OSI brought Reimer to federal court, but it would take four years for Judge Lawrence McKenna to issue a ruling. Time had always been the enemy of OSI, the slow churn of the judicial system as great an obstacle as the savviest defense attorney. The delay in the Reimer case, however, was unprecedented, and every day without a ruling fed a mounting fear at OSI that Reimer would be granted a graceful exit, an untroubled death on U.S. soil.

In 2002, McKenna finally issued an order that stripped Reimer of his U.S. citizenship. But the former Nazi collaborator died in Pennsylvania in 2005 before OSI and the State Department could find a country willing to take him.

Meanwhile, the work of OSI went on, even after it merged with the Domestic Security Section of the Justice Department to form a new unit with a broader, post-World War II mission. In August 2018, U.S. authorities deported former Trawniki man Jakiw Palij after 14 years of unsuccessful attempts. He had lived out much of his retirement on a quiet street in Queens, N.Y.

“If legal consequences for mass murder and mass atrocity become habitual to political and judicial behavior in the twenty-first century,” Black would say, “perhaps we can prevent mass murder in the future.” OSI has done its part: From 1990 to 2018, it denaturalized and deported more than 100 people who once assisted in Nazi persecution — more than the total Nazi-related prosecution victories for all other countries in the world combined.

Debbie Cenziper is a Pulitzer Prize-winning contributing reporter for The Washington Post. This article is adapted from her book “Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America,” published by Hachette Books.

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