“He is your Nazi—Take him back!” 150 Rambam students shouted that on Yom Hashoah in front of the German Consulate to the UN on First Avenue in Manhattan.
The purpose of the demonstration, an ongoing campaign organized by Rabbi Zev Friedman, rosh ha’yeshiva of Rambam, is to shame the German government into extraditing Jakiw Palij, a former Nazi guard at the infamous Trawniki labor camp, to face justice in Germany.
I was invited by Rabbi Friedman to get active and participate in this campaign. Naturally, as an old hand at demonstrations, I readily accepted. I was impressed with Rabbi Friedman’s professional demonstration techniques. With lectern and bullhorn at the ready, supported by 150 Rambam students, the demonstration was all set to go within minutes after arriving in Manhattan. His friendly attitude with local police from the 17th Precinct, assigned to coordinate the demonstration, was a far cry from my experience with police from the 1970s. Rabbi Friedman has the right idea.
I was also impressed with the students, who were well-prepared with facts and ready to press their case should any reporters be present. Such experience serves as a valuable lesson for the Rambam high-schoolers, teaching them the concept of responsibility for Judaism’s struggles. I joined the boys with enthusiasm in shouting at Germany that “He is your Nazi—Take him back!”
Jakiw Palij was a young man in his early twenties who worked for the SS as a guard at Trawniki, a forced labor camp in Poland. Trawniki served as a training camp for Nazi guards employed in numerous Nazi labor and death camps in Poland. Palij kept Jewish prisoners from escaping and kept his prisoners in inhumane conditions. On November 3, 1943, all 6,000 prisoners at Trawniki were slaughtered by the SS when they liquated the camp.
Palij immigrated to the U.S. in 1949 and claimed that he was a farmer with no connections to the Nazis. But Palij was stripped of his fraudulently obtained U.S. citizenship in 2003, after a federal judge found that he lied on his original immigration documents when entering the United States. Fifteen years ago, an immigration judge ordered Palij deported to Germany, Poland, Ukraine, or any country that would accept him. So far, no country is willing to take him back.
Although his social security benefits were terminated years ago, he lives in comfort in a red brick Queens row house on 89th Street, just around the corner from a Chipotle. Why is Palij still here?
He is here because of U.S. government red tape and German obfuscation.
Rabbi Friedman has been waging a decades-long campaign to deport Palij, so far unsuccessful. His efforts included demonstrating in front of Palij’s Queens home, with signs held by enthusiastic Rambam students, warning his neighbors that “Your neighbor is a Nazi!” This was the second time demonstrating in front of the German consulate in Manhattan.
The U.S. government is also under pressure from New York representatives adding to Rabbi Friedman’s voice to have Palij deported. New York Senators Gillibrand and Schumer, as well as every member of the New York congressional delegation, have added their names, urging the State Department to demand Germany take Palij back.
Germany, however, has used bureaucratic excuses, including citing Palij’s Ukrainian birth and claiming that Germany “has no legal ground in the German Residence Act to provide a reason for stay.” In truth, Germany has a poor record of prosecuting ex-Nazis, German or otherwise.
Over the years they have turned away a series of other defendants, telling the U.S. government that they would only admit ex-Nazis who held German citizenship or those who have been criminally charged in Germany. But in reality, Germany does not charge any former Nazis with any crimes, hoping that they die a natural death and the extradition issue becomes moot. With Palij at age 94, this may become the inevitable outcome.
In the meantime, Rabbi Friedman and the Rambam students keep up the pressure by demonstrating and reaching out to urge U.S. politicians to try to involve the White House in demanding that Germany accept Palij. At this stage, Germany may only respond to pressure from the White House.
The recent demonstration was accompanied by a request to New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez to ask Secretary of State designee Mike Pompeo to support this cause.
Joining us at the demonstration was Neal Sher, the former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigation, the unit that was responsible for the prosecution of many former Nazis, including Palij, during denaturalization and deportation efforts. Mr. Sher echoed Rabbi Friedman in demanding that the German government reverse course and take back this Nazi.
Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz –– My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on the development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He is presently teaching graduate studies and is active in several pro-Israel organizations. He is a retired research doctor in children’s pulmonary health and a master karate instructor.