By Eli Rosenbaum
On November 3, 1943, in a daylong killing spree of unfathomable ruthlessness and horror, an estimated 6,000 human beings of Jewish faith or descent — men, women, and children — were systematically shot to death at the Trawniki forced-labor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland by German SS and police personnel. Except for two women who somehow managed to find a hiding place, every Jewish prisoner at the camp was slaughtered.
The mind rebels against imagining thousands of victims forced to listen, hour after hour, to the gunfire and the screams of terror and pain of those who have gone to the executioners before them, knowing that they too were doomed. Some of those victims faced the ultimate nightmare of realizing that they were powerless to ameliorate the paralyzing fear of their children … or to prevent their children’s execution.
Almost incredibly, today — nearly 75 years after that ghastly paroxysm of genocidal mass murder occurred — Jakiw Palij, a former SS guard who helped ensure that no Jews could escape from the Trawniki labor camp, and who concealed his Nazi past in order to obtain a coveted U.S. immigrant visa, has been deported back to the country from which he immigrated here in 1949. Palij’s return to Germany today, escorted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, is a landmark victory in the U.S. Government’s decades-long quest to achieve a measure of justice and accountability on behalf of the victims of Nazi inhumanity.
Having worked since 1980 on Nazi prosecution cases and other human rights cases in what is now the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section at the U.S. Department of Justice, I am grateful to have had a career working for an agency, and a government, that has never forgotten the victims of Trawniki and the countless other sites of Nazi persecution and genocide. Although the Justice Department’s investigative and prosecutorial program has been the most successful of its kind in the world (winning cases against 108 Nazi persecutors), if anyone had told me in 2002 when we commenced the civil prosecution of Jakiw Palij in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., to revoke his ill-gotten U.S. citizenship, or in 2004 when we won a court order of removal against him, that in 2018 he would finally be deported to Germany, I would have found it nearly impossible to believe.
We acknowledge, with deep gratitude, the prosecutors, historians, and other staff members of my former office, the Office of Special Investigations, who toiled indefatigably to investigate and litigate this case and our 17 other Trawniki cases, our dedicated partners at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, at the U.S. Department of State, and at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The initiatives taken this year by the White House and Ambassador Richard Grenell, and the willingness of the current German government to accept Palij, were, without doubt, the decisive factors in achieving today’s long-hoped-for and historic result. We are grateful as well to the human-rights groups that pressed, year after year, for Germany to accept the repatriation of Palij and other Nazi persecutors — among them the World Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and B’nai B’rith International. Deserving of special mention are the several generations of high school students at the Rambam Mesivta in Lawrence, Long Island, who, under the leadership of their revered teacher, Rabbi Zev Friedman, himself a child of Holocaust survivors, never stopped crying out publicly for justice in this case.
Most of all, however, this is a time to remember the victims. Palij’s removal cannot undo the devastation and tragedy he helped make possible. But by serving as a warning to the would-be perpetrators of future human-rights crimes that the civilized world will never cease pursuing them, perhaps it will contribute to the creation one day of a world in which the post-Holocaust imperative “Never Again” becomes a reality, not just an ever-elusive aspiration.
As the attorney general said this morning, and I quote: “The United States will never be a safe haven for those who have participated in atrocities, war crimes, and human-rights abuses.” I would add: Today’s removal sends yet another message of deterrence to anyone who would dare even contemplate participating in human-rights crimes, namely that the passage of time — even many decades — will never weaken our government’s resolve to pursue justice on behalf of the victims.
Eli M. Rosenbaum was the Director of the U.S. DOJ Office of Special Investigations (OSI), which was primarily responsible for identifying, denaturalizing, and deporting Nazi war criminals from 1994 to 2010, when OSI was merged into the new Human Rights and Special Prosecution Section. He is now the Director of Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy in the new Department of Justice section.