LUDWIGSBURG, Germany — Before Allied forces liberated Nazi Germany and the survivors of Adolf Hitler’s labor and death camps more than 70 years ago, tens of thousands of Nazis who were directly involved in the Holocaust disappeared.
Some escaped abroad. Others hid in German cities, moving into houses with people they would have sent to their deaths under the Hitler regime.
Few of them faced justice — until now, perhaps.
At least 23 alleged Nazi criminals who are believed to have worked in death camps were already facing charges in Germany and Austria by June, marking a dramatic increase, compared with previous decades.
On Tuesday, the White House announced that it had deported 95-year-old Jakiw Palij, the last known alleged former Nazi labor camp guard living in the United States. Palij is not facing charges, but prosecutors said that they were looking for more evidence that would justify criminal proceedings.
The resident of the Queens borough of New York was arrested Monday and deported to Germany early Tuesday, according to the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. Palij was moved to a nursing home upon arrival in the city of Düsseldorf, Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper reported.
In a statement, U.S. officials indicated that the deportation was the result of negotiations by “President Trump and his team” and “collaborative efforts with a key European ally,” Germany.
Palij was born in what today constitutes Ukraine but was part of Poland at the time. After the end of World War II, he left Europe for the United States, where he became a citizen in 1957 by hiding his Nazi past. But 17 years ago, in 2001, Palij admitted his involvement with the Nazi SS, Hitler’s feared paramilitary organization.
Palij admitted to U.S. officials in 2001 that he was trained at the SS paramilitary camp in the town of Trawniki where units were specifically prepared to participate in the Holocaust. The now-95-year-old also worked at Trawniki’s labor camp the same year the Nazis massacred 6,000 Jews there. Palij has maintained that he did not participate in any killings, and German prosecutors currently believe that it is impossible to prove his involvement.
Palij’s deportation appears to have been the result of pressure by the Trump administration, rather than by German authorities.
U.S. officials took away Palij’s citizenship in 2003, and the former Nazi guard lost an appeals process two years later, but administrative challenges dragged on until now because it was unclear to which country Palij should be deported. American courts were unable to charge Palij because his alleged crimes occurred abroad, and all three European countries where prosecutors would have had more jurisdiction — Germany, Ukraine and Poland — refused to accept the former guard.
U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell indicated in a briefing call on Tuesday that Trump had taken a personal interest in Palij’s case, which likely made the difference. “I don’t know how he learned of the case, but it was very clear that he knew this individual as a Nazi guard and wanted him out of the United States,” Grenell said.
In an interview with Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” taped Wednesday, Trump said he took action after previous presidents had not.
“I have a lot of Jewish friends who said to me about this man living in Queens — I grew up in Queens," the president said. "And he was a man that — not just a prison guard. He was a prison guard that supervised the killing of many, many Jews. Many, many Jews. And he’s lived here for decades.
“From the beginning of the campaign, they tell me about this Nazi who lived in Queens, who walks the street like he owns the place,” Trump continued. "Now he’s an old man, he’s 95 years old. And the Obama administration was unable to pull it off. And, frankly, the Bush administration was unable to pull it off. And I was able to pull it off.”
Grenell on Tuesday said he brought the issue up in a number of recent meetings with German officials. “The president asked me to do this … they could tell we were making it a priority.”
The Germans "saw this as a moral obligation that they had, not so much a legal obligation,” Grenell said, referring to Palij not being a German citizen.
In Germany, Palij’s case will be handled by the country’s Nazi crimes authority, based in the city of Ludwigsburg, where officials said on Tuesday that the likelihood of a trial against Palij was low. The agency is currently focusing at a number of cases that are more likely to result in a trial.
All of the agency’s suspects are in their 90s, and some are likely to die ahead of any sentencing or could be declared unfit to stand trial. More than 70 years on, there is little time to be lost: It could be the last chance for Nazi criminals to face justice for crimes that continue to represent the worst of mankind.
How many more individuals will be charged largely depends on Jens Rommel, Germany’s sixth chief prosecutor for Nazi crimes. “All of my five predecessors assumed that they’d be the last person in this office,” Rommel said in an interview in June.
“In recent years, though, we’ve made some remarkable progress,” he said.
There was little reason for such enthusiasm only a few years ago, after German prosecutors for decades faced hurdles that made it impossible to charge a wide range of suspects despite evidence of their Nazi past.
“By 1960, murder and abetting murder were the only Nazi-era crimes that prosecutors could charge,” Elizabeth Barry White, a senior historian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, explained last year. High-ranking Nazi officers were often charged with lesser offenses only because their direct responsibility for the killing of one or more individuals could not be proved based on the narrow German jurisdiction. In many cases, lower-ranking guards or soldiers such as Palij were not even prosecuted at all.
“As time passed and the higher-ranking perpetrators died out, the pool of potential defendants shrank to those against whom evidence was hardest to find,” White said. A new approach was needed, and it came after a court convicted former Nazi guard John Demjanjuk in 2011.
Before 2011, prosecutors needed to provide evidence that guards had themselves murdered Jews or other Nazi opponents. But the Demjanjuk verdict was based on a dramatically different approach: His mere presence at the Nazi death camp was sufficient to establish responsibility for the killing.
Demjanjuk later appealed the sentence but died before a court could evaluate his claims. The new legal framework’s viability was proved only two years ago when another former guard lost his appeal following a similar sentence.
At the time, many feared that it may also have been the last.
And while the verdict may have led to the sentencing of hundreds more guards if it had come years earlier, the recent increase in investigations has led to new optimism among Germany’s Nazi prosecutors, said chief prosecutor Rommel, sitting in his Ludwigsburg office filled with books about the Nuremberg trials and a map of World War II-era Germany.
Rommel and his colleagues mainly rely on documents found in archives or in memorial sites of former death camps. The unit’s eight investigators then painstakingly compare the entries found in equipment or sick lists to establish a suspect’s identity. Once they’ve found a possible match, Rommel’s team checks whether the individual could still be alive.
“In 95 percent of cases, this isn’t the case,” Rommel said.
In the agency’s basement, tens of thousands of paper documents are stored that include details on convicts or clues that may eventually provide the identities of more suspects. It’s the world’s most comprehensive database of Nazi criminals.
But because German authorities assumed that active cases were going to drop, the archives were never digitalized. The agency’s bureaucratic paper trail isn’t the only challenge. Cases are also slowed because the Ludwigsburg-based Nazi crimes agency handles only early-stage investigations that are later taken over by local prosecutors.
“It takes time for prosecutors to review and understand the evidence. Given the age of the suspects, their capacity to stand trial can change very quickly, so that a once-promising case can overnight become impossible to prosecute,” White said.
Investigators aren’t sure how long they will be able to continue their work, because of the advanced age of the identified suspects.
Walking through his agency’s headquarters, surrounded by thousands of files with details on the Nazi criminals he and his predecessors hunted, Rommel acknowledged that the job had taken a personal toll on the investigators, especially as time is now running out.
“I don’t take those papers home with me. I just wouldn’t be able to let it go,” he said.
Felicia Sonmez and Seung Min Kim contributed from Washington.