By Dr. Alex Sternberg
“Ex-Nazi Guard In U.S. Deported To Germany”
The above headline and others like it screamed from the pages of most New York newspapers last week, and the deportation of Jakiw Palij was the lead-off story on news networks from CNN to Fox News. The New York Times, the New York Post, Newsday, World Israel News, BBC, and others carried the story about the deportation of the last remaining real-life Nazi from U.S. soil. What made this story such a sensational international news item?
Palij, a Polish-born ex-Nazi guard at the notorious Trawniki camp had been living in the United States since 1949, when he lied on his U.S. immigration documents about the type of work he did in WWII. Palij actually volunteered for duty in the SS. He was stationed in Trawniki in 1943, along with another notorious Nazi deported from the U.S., John Demjanjuk. Trawniki served as a training site for Nazi guards, who would then be sent to other camps such as Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz.
On November 3, 1943, after deciding to liquidate the camp, the SS guards of Trawniki gunned down over 6,000 men, women, and children in one day, making it the “single largest killing operation against Jews in the entire war” according to historians. This was a fact that Palij omitted on his citizenship application when he stated that he was an “innocent Polish farmer.”
Having been granted citizenship in 1957, he was tracked down by investigators who unmasked his real Nazi activities in 1993. It took ten years for the government, after affording Palij due process, to be able to strip him of his U.S. citizenship. In 2004, a federal immigration judge ordered Palij to be deported.
Why did it take another 14 years to finally get rid of him? No one wanted to take responsibility for him!
The area of Poland where he was born became part of Ukraine, and the crimes he committed were at the behest of Germany on Polish soil. The German government refused to accept him because he was a Polish national, while the Polish and Ukrainian governments balked as they squabbled over Palij’s ethnicity. In the interim 14 years (as in the previous 55 years) he lived a quiet and unobtrusive life as a steam fitter. Since 1966, he has lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. Why is this big news?
Palij is the last known SS guard living in the United States. Previously, 12 were identified, but the rest died quiet deaths, never expecting to be deported. Palij’s presence was not unnoticed. Largely due to the efforts of Rabbi Meir Friedman from Rambam Mesivta in Lawrence and his students, periodic demonstrations have raised awareness about Palij among his Queens neighbors and the New York press. Rabbi Friedman committed himself and his able students to the campaign to rid the United States of Palij.
With demonstrations in front of Palij’s house as well as in front of the German Consulate in Manhattan, Rabbi Friedman became the leader of a crusade. Confronted with clever slogans such as “He’s Your Nazi–Take Him Back,” the German Consulate reported back to Germany that the issue was not going away.
Year after year, several U.S. administrations were unable to convince any country to accept him. The deportation was the final result of a renewed push by the Trump administration, which had spent months pressuring Germany to accept Mr. Palij, according to a statement released by the White House.
“The last known Nazi officer living in the United States, they’ve been trying to get him out for decades,” President Trump said. “President Obama tried, they all tried. We got him out — gone. He’s back in Germany.”
It’s not likely that Palij will ever see justice done beyond being deported. After having his social security payments stopped, he will now live in a German retirement home. He will likely live out his remaining days there.
Many disagreed with the effort to deport the frail, 95-year-old man. Some of his neighbors defended him: “He is a quiet man, never bothering anyone.” But those are the very same descriptions you hear after the capture of serial killers.
The campaign to get rid of him was an uphill battle from the start. After so many years, many people lose interest. But Rabbi Friedman did not. He led a campaign to highlight the improbability of the situation, of having an order to deport but not having a place to deport to. Year after year, taking the students to fight for a seemingly thankless cause must have been frustrating. I wonder if, at times, even he doubted their efforts would become successful. But Rabbi Friedman did not give up. He had no sympathy for the Nazi.
“He may be 95 now, but I see him as a 20-year-old murderer who escaped prosecution for 75 years,” Rabbi Friedman told the New York Times.
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 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.