In 1951, the sentinel who guarded the Third Reich’s most notorious death camp arrived in the United States, amiable and voice thick with a central European accent.
Whatever he is — killer or hapless fool who barely knew a thing, as he claims — Johann Breyer had succeeded in distancing himself both temporally and geographically from the events of 1944.
Now, across those years and oceans, the past has come back for him.
Breyer, 89, hobbled into a Philadelphia courtroom on Wednesday in a purple inmate uniform, stooped and with a cane. Charged with 158 counts of “complicity in the commission of murder,” prosecutors have accused him of the “systematic murder of hundreds of thousands of European Jews, transported between May 1944 and October 1944 in 158 trainloads to Auschwitz,” according to federal court documents filed in Philadelphia. “Approximately 216,000 Jewish men, women and children from Hungary, Germany and Czechoslovakia [were] transported by these trains.”
Breyer was arrested on Tuesday, one year after a German court charged him and asked for his extradition. If successful, Breyer, one of the last living members of the SS “Death’s Head” Nazi battalion, will be the oldest person ever extradited from the United States to face allegations of Nazi crimes.
Breyer denies culpability. He claims he was ignorant of the executions at Auschwitz, where more than 1 million Jews were killed. “Not the slightest idea, never, never, ever,” 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 with the Associated Press: “I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t rape anybody… I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Prosecutors say that doesn’t matter. His mere presence at Auschwitz is enough to merit extradition. “He is charged with aiding and abetting those deaths,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Foulkes told the Inquirer. “Proof doesn’t require him to have personally pulled any levers. His guarding made it possible for those killings to happen.”
He was born on May 30, 1925, into a community of ethnic German farmers living in what was then Czechoslovakia. His mother, born in Philadelphia, placed him in German school. In November 1942, there came a local announcement: The SS was looking for recruits. Most ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia ignored the request without consequence, the indictment alleges, but not Breyer.
By early 1943, he arrived at Auschwitz, still a teenager. He allegedly became a member of the 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.”
Documents reviewed by the Associated Press show Breyer was a member of the Death’s Head until as late as Dec. 29, 1944, just weeks before Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Union, though Breyer claims to have deserted the camp months before.
Wednesday’s courtroom drama has been decades in the making. The Department of Justice first accused Breyer of Nazi crimes in 1992 and tried to boot him out of the country. But a 2003 federal decision allowed him to stay on claims of U.S. citizenship derived from his mother’s origins. It also ruled that because he was 17 when he enlisted with the Nazis, he didn’t bear responsibility for the atrocities.
But the 2011 conviction in Munich of an Ohio man changed the calculus. Prosecutors were able to have John Demjanjuk, who had served at another notorious death camp, convicted on the legal theory that guards were just as guilty of murder as those pulling levers in gas chambers. Even without proof of direct participation, the legal argument holds that anyone who worked at a death camp is guilty of murder because the camps’ sole purpose was to kill.
Breyer, whose bail was denied, is fighting extradition. “I’m an American citizen, just as if I had been born here,” he told the AP in 2012. “They can’t deport me.”