BERLIN: A 95-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard who lived quietly in New York City for decades was carried out of his home on a stretcher by federal agents and flown to Germany early Tuesday in what could prove to be the last US deportation of a World War II-era war-crimes suspect.
Jakiw Palij’s expulsion, at President Donald Trump’s urging, came 25 years after investigators first accused Palij of lying about his wartime past to get into the US But it was largely symbolic because officials in Germany have repeatedly said there is insufficient evidence to prosecute him.
Trump “made it very clear” he wanted Palij out of the country, and a new German government that took office in March brought “new energy” to expediting the matter, US Ambassador Richard Grenell said.
“He’s gone. He’s back in Germany,” Trump said at a campaign rally in West Virginia Tuesday night as he celebrated his role in the deportation.
Eli Rosenbaum, the former head of the US office investigating accused Nazi war criminals, said Palij’s removal “is a landmark victory in the US government’s decades-long quest to achieve a measure of justice and accountability on behalf of the victims of Nazi inhumanity.”
Palij lived quietly in the US for years, as a draftsman and then as a retiree, until nearly three decades ago when investigators found his name on an old Nazi roster and a fellow former guard spilled the secret that he was “living somewhere in America.”
Palij, an ethnic Ukrainian born in a part of Poland that is now Ukraine, said on his 1957 naturalization petition that he had Ukrainian citizenship. When their investigators showed up at his door in 1993, he said: “I would never have received my visa if I told the truth. Everyone lied.”
A judge stripped Palij’s US citizenship in 2003 for “participation in acts against Jewish civilians” while he was an armed guard at the Trawniki camp in Nazi-occupied Poland and he was ordered deported a year later.
But because Germany, Poland, Ukraine and other countries refused to take him, he continued living in limbo in the two-story, red brick home in Queens he shared with his late wife, Maria. His continued presence there outraged the Jewish community, attracting frequent protests over the years that featured such chants as, “Your neighbor is a Nazi!“
According to the Justice Department, Palij served at Trawniki in 1943, the same year 6,000 prisoners in the camps and tens of thousands of other prisoners held in occupied Poland were rounded up and slaughtered. Palij has acknowledged serving in Trawniki but denied any involvement in war crimes.
Last September, all 29 members of New York’s congressional delegation signed a letter urging the State Department to follow through on his deportation.
“Good riddance to this war criminal,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
The deportation came after weeks of diplomatic negotiations.
Grenell told reporters there were “difficult conversations” because Palij is not a German citizen and was stateless after losing his US citizenship. But “the moral obligation” of taking in “someone who served in the name of the German government was accepted,” he said.
Video footage from ABC News showed federal immigration agents carrying Palij out of his home Monday on a stretcher. Palij, with a fluffy white beard and a brown, newsboy-style cap atop his head, was wrapped in a sheet as the agents carried him down a brick stairway in front of his home and into a waiting ambulance.
He ignored a reporter who shouted, “Are you a Nazi?” and “Do you have any regrets?“
Palij was flown on a specially chartered air ambulance from Teterboro, New Jersey, according to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and arrived in Dusseldorf, Germany, at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
Palij’s lawyer, Ivars Berzins, declined to comment.
The local German government in Warendorf county, near Muenster, said Palij would be taken to a care facility in the town of Ahlen.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said “there is no line under historical responsibility,” but added in a comment to the German daily Bild that doing justice to the memory of Nazi atrocities “means standing by our moral obligation to the victims and the subsequent generations.”
Jens Rommel, head of the German federal prosecutors’ office that investigates Nazi war crimes, said Tuesday that the deportation doesn’t change the likelihood that Palij will be prosecuted for war crimes. “A new investigation would only come into question if something changed in the legal evaluation or actual new evidence became known,” he said.
However, Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi-hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he hoped prosecutors would revisit the case now that Palij is in Germany.
“Trawniki was a camp where people were trained to round up and murder the Jews in Poland, so there’s certainly a basis for some sort of prosecution,” he said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
“The efforts invested by the United States in getting Palij deported are really noteworthy and I’m very happy to see that they finally met with success,” he said.
Palij’s deportation is the first for a Nazi war crimes suspect since Germany agreed in 2009 to take John Demjanjuk, a retired Ohio autoworker who was accused of serving as a Nazi guard. He was convicted in 2011 of being an accessory to more than 28,000 killings and died 10 months later, at age 91, with his appeal pending.
Palij, whose full name is pronounced Yah-keev PAH’-lee, entered the US in 1949 under the Displaced Persons Act, a law meant to help refugees from post-war Europe.
He told immigration officials that he worked during the war in a woodshop and farm in Nazi-occupied Poland, as well as at another farm in Germany and finally in a German upholstery factory. Palij said he never served in the military.
In reality, officials say, he played an essential role in the Nazi program to exterminate Jews as an armed guard at Trawniki. According to a Justice Department complaint, Palij served in a unit that “committed atrocities against Polish civilians and others” and then in the notorious SS Streibel Battalion, “a unit whose function was to round up and guard thousands of Polish civilian forced laborers.”
After the war, Palij maintained friendships with other Nazi guards who the government says came to the US under similar false pretenses.
The Justice Department’s special Nazi-hunting unit started piecing together Palij’s past after a fellow Trawniki guard identified him to Canadian authorities in 1989. Investigators asked Russia and other countries for records on Palij beginning in 1990 and first confronted him in 1993.
It wasn’t until after a second interview in 2001 that he signed a document acknowledging he had been a guard at Trawniki and a member of the Streibel Battalion. Palij suggested at one point during that interview that he was threatened with death if he refused to work as a guard, saying, “If you don’t show up, boom-boom.”
Though the last Nazi suspect ordered deported, Palij is not the last remaining in the US
Since 2017, Poland has been seeking the extradition of Ukrainian-born Michael Karkoc, an ex-commander in an SS-led Nazi unit that burned Polish villages and killed civilians during the war. But it could take years before the 99-year-old, who currently lives in Minneapolis, faces deportation. He was the subject of a series of 2013 reports by The Associated Press that led Polish prosecutors to issue an arrest warrant for him.