He had watched eight Nazi war criminals die on American soil long after federal judges had ordered them to leave, so when the email came in early July with news that Germany would finally take the last surviving Nazi defendant in the United States, Eli Rosenbaum tried not to worry.
Anything could go wrong. It had before, too many times to count. At 95, Jakiw Palij could grow too ill to leave his home in Queens. The fledgling agreement between the United States and the German government could fall apart. As recently as December, a German government official publicly said that Palij, born in a Polish village in what is now Ukraine, had no legal basis to enter Germany.
That argument frustrated Rosenbaum for years as director of the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), a former unit inside the criminal division of the U.S. Justice Department. From a nondescript outpost in Northwest Washington, the OSI identified and prosecuted Nazi perpetrators who slipped into the United States after the Holocaust, many with stories about war years spent on farms and fields, unconnected to the killing centers and mass-shooting squads of occupied Europe.
Rosenbaum had long thought of the 6,000 Jewish prisoners who were executed on a single day at the Nazi labor camp in southern Poland that Palij once guarded. How Palij might never be brought to justice. How he might get to die in New York rather than in the country that had trained, armed and directed him during the war.
“Germany isn’t taking their Nazis back,” Rosenbaum often said over the years, which is why he couldn’t help feeling anxious earlier this summer as he read the surprise email from the U.S. ambassador to Germany. A tentative deal had been struck to remove Palij from the United States — 14 years after an immigration judge ordered him deported.
It turns out, Rosenbaum would have little time to worry.
On Aug. 20, federal agents took Palij into custody and shuttled him to a chartered air ambulance waiting in Teterboro, N.J. Then, just after 4:30 p.m., nearly seven decades after Palij sailed into the port of Boston on the USS General Stuart Heintzelman alongside hundreds of Europe’s war refugees, Rosenbaum got the two-word update he had waited years to read.
And just like that, the plane made its way out of U.S. airspace, bound for Düsseldorf, Germany.
The sudden deportation of Palij after more than a decade of unsuccessful attempts was the result of a closely guarded operation that spanned government agencies in Washington, New York and Berlin, including the Justice Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues and the U.S. Embassy in Germany.
Vice President Pence and his chief of staff were involved in discussions. So was the secretary of state, national security officials, the director of the Domestic Policy Council and a special assistant for domestic policy for President Trump, who, according to the White House and those involved in the operation, insisted that the deportation be made a top priority.
Few people had more at stake than 63-year-old Rosenbaum, who started working as a prosecutor at the OSI after he graduated from Harvard Law School. Since the 1980s, he has been urging Germany to take back Nazi war-crime perpetrators found in states including New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. He has arranged meetings with German diplomats, written letters to a succession of German ambassadors to the United States, strategized with German prosecutors and investigators, briefed congressional staff members, pressed the issue in speeches and repeatedly met with top officials at the State Department.
U.S. courts do not have jurisdiction to hear criminal cases involving crimes committed abroad during World War II, but the OSI prosecuted in civil court more than 130 Nazi defendants through denaturalization and deportation proceedings. More than 65 people were removed from the United States over the years, but some OSI defendants were turned away by foreign governments. Germany, Poland and Ukraine each denied Palij entry.
In 2014, the State Department urged Rosenbaum to travel to Berlin about the matter.
“What’s the point in my going?” Rosenbaum recalled saying before the visit. “They say no every time.”
He went anyway, pointing out during a meeting at the Justice Ministry that Germany had a moral obligation to admit Nazi war criminals.
Palij was OSI’s last surviving defendant, ordered to leave the United States in 2004. His continued presence in the rowhouse on 89th Street in Queens that he bought more than a half-century ago drew regular protests and news reports. Last year, every member of the New York congressional delegation and more than 80 members of the New York State Assembly wrote letters to federal officials pushing for Palij’s removal.
Rosenbaum, now with OSI’s successor unit, the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, called the deportation a “perfect storm.”
“At any moment in time, it could have unraveled,” Rosenbaum said. “One of the things that makes this job bearable is that I have the privilege of working with people — you never know when you’re going to meet them — from one agency or another whose hearts are touched by these cases and suddenly they are in the same corner you are, fighting.”
The deportation deal was forged by Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, who said he was enlisted to help even before he had the job. In August 2017, a few weeks before Trump nominated Grenell to the post, the president made clear that he wanted Palij deported.
“You need to get the Nazi out of New York,” Grenell recalled the president saying.
A statement from the White House press secretary noted that Trump had “prioritized the removal of Palij.”
Grenell, a former U.S. spokesman at the United Nations, said he researched the case and read the letter that the New York congressional delegation sent last September to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. When Grenell arrived in Berlin in May, he told embassy staff to press the Palij case at every meeting with German officials.
They would use a singular sentiment: “We don’t want him dying in the United States in comfort.”
For years, Germany had denied Palij’s entrance for legal reasons, arguing that he was not a German citizen and that he could not be prosecuted under German law. Grenell decided to push instead on moral grounds.
“We don’t want him. He’s not ours,” Grenell recalled saying.
There were meetings with Jewish groups in Germany, and then, in July, the outlines of a deal that would be kept quiet until the deportation had been completed.
At the Justice Department, Rosenbaum had been analyzing immigration legislation when the email came in from Grenell. Federal agencies began to prepare, deciding when and how officers would pick up Palij and fly him safely to Germany and whether he would have any trouble getting in, since he had surrendered his U.S. passport.
Then the Germans set a date for Palij’s arrival — early morning, Aug. 21.
Still, Rosenbaum worried: The Germans could change their minds. Elderly defendants had been known to feign illness during court proceedings and deportations to delay or thwart the government.
Rosenbaum started to pull together a detailed timeline about the case, which was launched in the 1990s after OSI historians found Palij’s name on a roster of Nazi guards that had been stashed for decades in the archives in Prague. They were ultimately able to place Palij, in February 1943, in an obscure camp in the southern Polish village of Trawniki, where the Nazis trained guards for Operation Reinhard, the program to murder the Jews of occupied Poland. Though Palij’s personnel file did not survive the war, historians analyzed dozens of statements from his comrades, who reported that they guarded Jewish prisoners at a forced-labor camp adjacent to the training center.
Nine months after Palij arrived at Trawniki, members of the SS and German police shot nearly every prisoner, thousands of men, women and children, at the edges of pits. Taken together, the November 1943 shootings at Trawniki and two nearby camps were the largest single-day shooting operation in the Holocaust.
Palij has denied taking part in any killings, telling the New York Times in 2003 that he was “never a collaborator.”
At his desk at the Justice Department days before Palij’s deportation, Rosenbaum reread a transcript of a confession he got 26 years ago from another Trawniki man, Jakob Reimer of New York, who died on U.S. soil in 2005, a few months after the OSI launched a deportation case. Germany had already declined to take him.
“You heard the gunfire?” he had asked Reimer.
“All day long, yes.”
“And you heard the screams?”
“And it was men?”
“There were children, women. Everybody were all shot.”
Rosenbaum sent excerpts to the Justice Department’s criminal division, ICE and other officials at the State Department.
As the deportation crept closer, Rosenbaum stopped eating lunch. He started pulling together a binder, three inches thick, stuffed with his notes and the government’s records on the case. In the office one afternoon, historian Jeffrey Richter read Rosenbaum a 1966 statement from one of only two survivors of the Trawniki shooting, translating from German: “At first, we heard shots and screams. After around two hours, everything was quiet.”
“Oh no,” Rosenbaum said as he listened. “Oh no.”
On the afternoon that Palij would be taken into custody, Rosenbaum watched his computer for hours, checking for updates until the plane carrying Palij was somewhere over the Atlantic, too far for the plane to turn around. He went home to a plate of ravioli that his wife had left him and decided to get some sleep. He would be one of the key speakers at a morning news conference.
At 4 a.m., he woke and reached for his phone.
There was a 2 a.m. interagency email: The plane had landed in Düsseldorf. There was a second email just after 2:30 a.m.: Palij had been admitted into Germany.
Quickly, Rosenbaum reached out to the people who knew the case best.
“Hi, Chief,” he wrote to longtime OSI chief historian Peter Black, who spent more than 15 years investigating and testifying against the men of Trawniki. “He arrived in Germany a few hours ago.”
Black wrote back: “How in the world did you get the Germans to agree to take him?”
Rosenbaum wrote to Long Island Rabbi Zev Friedman, who lost more than 200 family members in Poland during the war and had taken a generation of Jewish students to demonstrations on Palij’s street in Queens.
And Rosenbaum wrote to Elizabeth “Barry” White, a former OSI chief historian now at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who discovered another Trawniki guard from Palij’s village in Ukraine. He died on U.S. soil eight years after an immigration judge ordered him deported.
“After so many managed to live out their lives here despite final removal orders,” White wrote back to Rosenbaum, “this one feels like vindication.”
Coleman is a student at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.