A 95-year-old former German concentration camp guard who made a new life in Tennessee was deported to his home country Saturday after an index card found in a sunken ship helped prove his Nazi ties.
The camp held Russian, Dutch and Polish civilians, as well as Jewish prisoners and political opponents from France, Italy and other countries. In the winter of 1945, according to Berger’s removal order, prisoners were forced to live in “atrocious” conditions and work “to the point of exhaustion and death.”
It was not immediately clear whether German authorities would take steps against Berger. Germany dropped its case against him last year because of a lack of evidence, but he will be questioned by German police, and new charges could be possible, according to German media.
In 1945, as British and Canadian forces approached the subcamp, Berger helped guard prisoners forced to evacuate to the main camp, Justice Department officials have said. During the brutal two-week trek, 70 prisoners died.
Hundreds more were killed when they were placed on two ships at anchor in the Bay of Lubeck in the Baltic Sea. The ships were mistakenly bombed by British warplanes in May 1945 during the last week of the war in Europe.
Justice Department historians were able to document Berger’s service at the camp in part with information from an index card found in one of the sunken ships several years after the bombing. The card summarized Berger’s work in the camp system.
Acting attorney general Monty Wilkinson said Berger’s removal shows the department’s “commitment to ensuring that the United States is not a safe haven for those who have participated in Nazi crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses.”
Since 1979, the Justice Department has won similar cases against 70 people, but the pace of Nazi-era cases has slowed with the passage of time, and the department has no other such cases pending — meaning Berger could end up being the last former Nazi guard kicked out of the country.
After the war, Berger emigrated from Germany to Canada with his wife and daughter, and came to the United States in 1959.
Berger, now a widower with two grandchildren, has said he was ordered to work in the camp, was only there a short time and did not carry a weapon.
“After 75 years, this is ridiculous. I cannot believe it,” he said last year as he fought his expulsion from the United States. “I cannot understand how this can happen in a country like this. You’re forcing me out of my home.”
Justice Department investigators concluded that Berger worked in the German navy before being detailed to the concentration camp in the final months of the war.
During an immigration court trial last year, Berger acknowledged he guarded prisoners, did not request a transfer from the camp and was still receiving a pension from Germany for work based in part on his wartime service, U.S. officials said.
After the trial, Berger said much of what was determined in court was based on “lies.”
“I was 19 years old,” he said. “I was ordered to go there.”
Justice Department officials said Berger came to the United States legally. The federal law that barred the entry of people who assisted in Nazi persecution had expired in 1957. When he applied to immigrate to the United States, Berger disclosed that he had been a member of the German navy.
Berger was ordered removed under a 1978 law, known as the Holtzman Amendment, that bars anyone who participated in Nazi-sponsored persecution from entering or living in the United States.
Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.