Former SS camp guard Jakiv Palij has landed in Düsseldorf, 14 years after his deportation order was signed in the US. But whether he faces trial in Germany remains far from clear.
The US government has finally been allowed to deport former Nazi concentration camp guard Jakiv Palij, thanks to a special German government dispensation.
The 95-year-old Palij arrived in a military airplane at Düsseldorf Airport on Tuesday morning. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) newspaper reported that he was taken by ambulance to a nursing home in the Münsterland region.
The move comes a day after German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited the former Auschwitz death camp in Poland. Maas said Palij's deportation "sends a clear signal of Germany's moral responsibility," according to a Foreign Ministry statement sent to DW.
The Palij case has been the subject of complex legal and diplomatic negotiations between the US and German governments since at least 2004. Born in Poland in 1923, he was trained by the SS in the Trawniki concentration camp in southeastern Nazi-occupied Poland in 1941. So-called "Trawniki men" went on to participate in the Holocaust as guards in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka concentration camps.
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Palij, who was never a German citizen, emigrated to the US as a war refugee in 1949 and became a naturalized citizen in 1957. But in 2003, a federal judge in New York stripped him of his citizenship on the grounds that he had concealed his service at an SS slave-labor camp.
A deportation order was issued in 2004, but he was never deported, even though, according to the German Foreign Ministry, "The US has constantly been urgently demanding Palij's return to Germany. US administrators, senators, congressmen, and representatives of the Jewish communities in the USA emphasize that people who served the criminal NS [Nazi] regime should not spend the twilight of their lives in the country of their choice, the USA."
In an interview with DW, Deidre Berger, Berlin Director of the American Jewish Committee, said the deportation of 95-year-old Palij was essential to help young people in particular to understand that there can be no expiration date on the crimes of the Nazis.
"It's of extreme importance today, for the younger generation in an era where Holocaust memory is being attacked from all sides, where Holocaust revisionism is becoming popular on the Internet where young people see this," Berger said.
The US Embassy credited Ambassador Richard Grenell with breaking the impasse, saying that President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had asked him "to make Palij's removal from the US a top priority."
Grenell said the deportation had been the result of a concerted effort by Trump. "He (Trump) told me directly to make it a priority, to get the Nazi out," Grenell said. "I felt very strongly that the German government had a moral obligation and they accepted that," he said, adding that it was up to Germany to decide whether to prosecute him.
"He's going to die soon and we wanted to make sure he didn't die in peace and comfort at home," Grenell told DW.
"Ambassador Grenell's persistence in raising awareness about the case with every senior official he met sparked action by the new German government officials," the embassy said in a statement. "The decision to allow Palij to return to Germany was because of the political will and strong commitment of several members of the chancellor's team, as well as Ministers Maas and [Horst] Seehofer. We are grateful to them for helping bring another step towards closure for the victims of the Holocaust and their families."
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The German Interior Ministry said that it had issued an order allowing Palij's entry based on a special dispensation of residency laws which give permission for a foreign national to live in the country "to preserve the political interests of the Federal Republic of Germany." The ministry also confirmed to DW that the federal government would carry the costs of his residency.
But what happens to Palij now remains far from clear. Jens Rommel, the state prosecutor who heads Germany's "Nazi hunter" office — officially known as the Central Office of the Land Judicial Authorities for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes — told DW that the case against Palij was not strong.
There is no evidence that Palij had served anywhere other than Trawniki, and it is, according to Rommel, impossible to establish a case against him without fresh evidence. The German state's own investigations into Palij were halted in 2016 for lack of evidence.
"We need a connection between the service and the actions of the individual in question, and murder itself," Rommel said. "If we knew that he was in a certain company which had rounded up prisoners or shot prisoners, that would be enough — but we don't have that evidence."
He pointed out that the "hurdle for evidence for accessory to murder" under the German criminal code was much higher than for stripping someone of citizenship.
The US federal court described Palij's role in a 2003 ruling. A US Justice Department (DOJ) statement from that year noted that the New York judge said "that on November 3 and 4, 1943, 'in a brutal spate of killing,' other units 'slaughtered Trawniki's entire inmate population' of some 6,000 Jewish civilians.'"
"Judge Ross also found that by March 1944 Palij was serving in the Deployment Company, a unit that perpetrated numerous atrocities against Polish civilians and others," the DOJ statement said. "When Palij applied for an immigration visa to the United States in 1949, the judge held, he falsely claimed that he worked on his father's farm and then in Germany during the period when he was actually in Nazi service."
The German judiciary has been infamously reluctant to prosecute Holocaust perpetrators. A turning point came in 2011 with the conviction of another "Trawniki man," Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk, on charges of accessory to murder in 28,060 cases.
Demjanjuk was sentenced to five years in prison and died ten months later aged 91, but the case set the crucial precedent that service at a Nazi death camp was enough to secure a conviction. Several late Nazi trials followed, though all the defendants were in their 90s.
But the Demjanjuk case was simpler, said Rommel: "Demjanjuk was also trained in Trawniki, but he was deployed in the death camp Sobibor, where everyone who arrived was killed, so that everyone who served there, regardless of what they did on individual days, helped to maintain this death machinery."