A 95-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard has been deported to Germany from the US after years of diplomatic wrangling over his status.
Jakiw Palij, who lived in Queens, New York City, landed at Düsseldorf airport on Tuesday morning.
Palij is accused of having lied to gain entry to the US almost 70 years ago, claiming he was a Polish farmer. Almost 20 years ago the US authorities determined that he had been a member of the SS, the elite corps of the Nazi party, and had worked at the Trawniki concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. The camp trained soldiers to round up Jews for extermination.
His US citizenship, which he had been granted in 1957, was revoked in 2003. In 2005 a judge ordered his expulsion.
But German authorities resisted taking him, saying the crimes he was alleged to have carried out took place on foreign soil. The US was unable to prosecute him for the same reason. Both Poland and Ukraine (where Trawniki is now located) refused to take Palij, claiming it was Germany’s responsibility.
For years American diplomats have been leaning on the German government, claiming it had a moral responsibility to accept him.
Meanwhile, Palij continued living in the two-story, red-brick home in Queens, which he shared with his wife, Maria. His presence outraged the Jewish community; there were frequent protests over the years, including chants such as: “Your neighbor is a Nazi!”
Shari Brill, one of Palij’s neighbors, who had written to her political representatives to back his deportation, said: “When I think, he got to live this idyllic life in the middle of Jackson Heights, and he took away the opportunity of … Jewish people to do the same thing. I have many friends who lost relatives in the Holocaust. I had neighbors with tattoo numbers. To know that we’re finally rid of him, it’s good news.”
Neighbors described Palij as a quiet elderly man who did not stand out. Many only discovered his history from the protests and news coverage.
“I didn’t even realise he lived right here on my block,” said 33-year-old Adam DiFilippo. “I don’t care how old he is. What he did when he was my age, even a little bit younger, a little bit older, no matter what – his old age does not excuse his actions … whatever he gets now, he gets what he deserves.”
Palij told justice department investigators who came to his door in 1993: “I would never have received my visa if I told the truth. Everyone lied.”
The precedent for the deportation of Palij was set by the case of John Demjanjuk, who was deported from his adopted home in the US in 2009. He was found guilty by a Munich court of taking part in the murders of 28,000 people in the Sobibór concentration camp in Poland. Demjanjuk died in Germany in 2012.
Whether Palij will face trial in Germany is uncertain, as prosecutors have repeatedly insisted there is not enough evidence to bring charges against him.
According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, Palij, whose arrival took place in secrecy, was taken by a Red Cross ambulance to a retirement home outside Münster, in western Germany. Pictures showed a bearded man in a cap, a bag over his left shoulder, walking unaided down the steps of the Gulfstream III aircraft that had brought him from New Jersey to Düsseldorf, flanked by two care attendants.
Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, told the tabloid Bild that Germany had recognised its obligation to accept Palij. “There is no cut-off point for historical responsibility. To do justice to the memory of Nazi-era atrocities means to fight against antisemitism, discrimination and racism. And it means standing up to our moral obligations on behalf of the victims and successive generations. The guilt of those who carried out these crimes in Germany’s name will never elapse. The pain continues to be deep.”
A spokesman for the foreign ministry told the newspaper that Germany had come under increasing pressure to facilitate Palij’s arrival. “The US has repeatedly and emphatically demanded that Germany admit Palij. The US administration, senators, members of Congress and representatives of Jewish communities in the US stress that people who have served in the rogue regime of the Nazis should not be able to spend their twilight years unchallenged in the country of their choice, the US.”