Former guard at Nazi camp is the last remaining war collaborator ordered out of the United States. Authorities want him gone before he dies.

December 16.  Click for full report.

The view down an alley off the Queens street where Nazi collaborator Jakiw Palij lives. (Celeste Sloman/For The Washington Post)
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The last surviving Nazi collaborator ordered to leave American soil lives in a redbrick Queens rowhouse on a bustling stretch of 89th Street, just around the corner from a Chipotle with a distant view of the Manhattan skyline.

It has been 14 years since a federal court in New York stripped Jakiw Palij of his U.S. citizenship for concealing his service as an armed guard in a brutal labor camp in eastern Poland, where 6,000 Jewish prisoners were later shot in pits on a single day in 1943. An immigration judge ordered Palij deported to Germany, Poland, Ukraine or any other country that would take him.

But the three countries have repeatedly declined to accept him, allowing 94-year-old Palij to spend his retirement in the comfortable Jackson Heights neighborhood where he has lived for years, with bicycles hitched to street signs and Christmas wreaths tacked to front doors.

Now, in a race against time, lawmakers and Jewish groups have been increasing pressure on the Trump administration to remove him. Legislators have written to the State and Justice departments, and protesters have regularly gathered outside Palij’s house with signs that read, “His hands are drenched in blood.” Two members of Congress are pushing for a hearing.

Since 2005, eight Nazi collaborators under deportation orders have died on U.S. soil after being rejected by their native countries and Germany. A ninth died a few months after the U.S. government launched a deportation case; Germany had already declined to take him.

The cases — in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts and Missouri — wound through the court system for years, involving more than 25 federal prosecutors.

Palij is the last living defendant.

In September, every member of the New York congressional delegation penned a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, demanding that he step in before Palij dies here. More than 80 members of the New York State Assembly also have pushed for Palij’s deportation, sending a letter in June to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“Victims of the Holocaust, the people living in Queens, families of veterans, I think for all of us, it is really painful and sad that . . . someone who stands in direct opposition to every value we have here in America of tolerance and risking lives against evil, can live here for so many years, hiding in plain sight,” said Long Island Rabbi Zev Friedman, who lost more than 200 family members in Poland during World War II. “It goes against everything that we believe in.”


Rabbi Zev Friedman, at his home in Lawrence, N.Y., is among those demanding the removal of Palij. (Celeste Sloman/For The Washington Post)
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The demands to remove Palij have generated a swift response from federal officials. In an October letter to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the State Department said that it had reached out again to the governments of Germany, Poland and Ukraine and was turned down. Senior officials in Berlin then pressed the issue with their counterparts at Germany’s Interior Ministry.

“We remain hopeful that ongoing engagement with our allies will eventually result in Mr. Palij’s long overdue removal,” wrote Charles Faulkner, deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs.

Last month, the Justice Department responded to members of the New York State Assembly, with Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd writing, “The Department agrees fully that Palij should not live out his last days in this country.”

Those pushing for Palij’s removal want the White House to get involved.

“The 13 years that Mr. Palij has stayed in this country since he was stripped of his U.S. citizenship and ordered to be deported is 13 years too many,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “The State Department and the entire Trump administration ought to treat this with the attention it deserves and try everything at their disposal to carry out the court order and remove this former Nazi guard from our country.”

Thomas Yazdgerdi, special envoy for Holocaust issues at the State Department, said that U.S. diplomats have been raising the issue in Germany for years to members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet and other top officials. Yazdgerdi said that members of Congress and the White House should unite behind the effort to deport Palij.

“It’s going to be difficult, unless this is bumped up to a very high level, for this to be resolved,” he said.

Palij declined to comment when a Washington Post reporter went to his home earlier this month. In 2003, Palij told the New York Times that he was forced into service and did not take part in any killings during the war.

“I was never a collaborator,” Palij said.

In court documents at the time, Palij’s lawyer wrote, “The government seeks to strip an infirm old man of his citizenship.”

The case against Palij was brought by the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), a former unit in the Justice Department’s criminal division that spent decades hunting Nazi collaborators who had concealed their activities during the war, immigrated to the United States and, in most cases, gained U.S. citizenship.

Federal law does not give the government jurisdiction over crimes committed abroad during World War II, but prosecutors can take defendants to federal court for denaturalization proceedings and then to an immigration judge for a deportation order. It is up to foreign governments to decide whether the defendants should be admitted.

Prosecutors who worked at OSI said that Germany bears most of the responsibility.

“Germany has an obligation to take back people who were serving in the name of the German government,” said attorney Neal Sher, who led OSI from 1982 to 1994. “There is only one word that comes to mind that sums up and explains their attitude, and that is ‘duplicity.’ Time after time, they advanced ridiculous arguments as to why they could not take back people who had committed crimes in the name of the German people.”


John Demjanjuk emerges in May 2011 from a Munich court after a judge sentenced him to five years in prison for charges related to 28,060 counts of accessory to murder. He died in 2012, at 91. (Johannes Simon/Getty Images)
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Over the years, nearly 30 Nazi defendants from the United States have gone back to Germany. Some were German citizens; others fled to Germany before they were denaturalized in the United States. Most went on to live in freedom. Four were prosecuted, most notably former death camp guard John Demjanjuk, who was eventually convicted of being an accessory in the murders of more than 28,000 people at the Sobibor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

But Germany has turned away a series of other U.S. defendants. German officials, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Post, have told the U.S. government that they would admit only ex-Nazis who held German citizenship or those who had been criminally charged in Germany.

Palij is from a Polish village in what is now Ukraine. In denying Palij, the German ambassador to the United States wrote in 2006 that “the German Government believes the responsibility for admitting such persons lies with the state whose citizenship they hold.”

A German government official said in an email to The Post last week that “the Federal Republic of Germany is not a position to accept Jakiw Palij into Germany as he is not a German national and there is no legal ground in the German Residence Act to provide a reason for stay.”

Faulkner, with the State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs, criticized that policy in his letter to Gillibrand.

“The United States has made it clear to German authorities that we do not accept that position as having a valid legal basis,” he wrote.

Germany’s stance has long frustrated Justice Department lawyers, who said they had to race against the clock to successfully pursue cases against elderly war criminals and then watch as one after another died on U.S. soil.

Missouri defendant Michael Negele, who used a guard dog to patrol the infamous Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, died in 2005. New York defendant Mykola Wasylyk, who stood guard in a watch tower at a slave-labor camp in Poland, died in 2010.

Pennsylvania defendant Theodor Szehinskyj, an armed guard in camps in Poland and Germany, died in 2014 — 14 years after a federal judge found that Szehinskyj had participated in the Third Reich’s “closed culture of murder.”

“Germany has a moral responsibility to accept Jakiw Palij,” said former federal prosecutor Jonathan Drimmer, who oversaw Palij’s case in 2003. “Germany has made important steps in bringing people to justice within Germany, but the persistent refusal to take men like Palij is difficult to accept or defend. . . . If we want to stop genocide, we have to pursue the perpetrators until their last dying breath.”

In 2008, Sher’s OSI successor, attorney Eli Rosenbaum, flew to Germany to help mark the 50th anniversary of the German agency that coordinates the investigations of suspected Nazi war criminals. In a speech to scholars and prosecutors, Rosenbaum pleaded for help.

At the time, five Nazi collaborators were under deportation orders in the United States.

“The nonacceptance of what to us is a clear moral obligation is a great disappointment,” Rosenbaum said. “If Germany does not act to admit these men . . . they will likely get to spend the rest of their lives in my country, which is the adopted homeland of so many thousands of Holocaust survivors and is a country whose families sacrificed 200,000 of their sons in order to bring to an end the nightmare of Nazi inhumanity in Europe.”

Friedman displays a brick that came from the factory that his family owned in Poland before World War II. (Celeste Sloman/For The Washington Post)
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Palij immigrated to the United States in 1949 after telling U.S. investigators that he had worked on his father’s farm during much of the war. He sailed into Boston, became a U.S. citizen and, in 1966, bought his house in Queens.

He lived quietly for years until OSI historians found that Palij had served as an armed guard in Trawniki, Poland, which had a labor camp for Jewish men, women and children as well as a training camp for armed Nazi recruits who would spread out across Poland to guard concentration camps and Jewish ghettos.

In 2001, Drimmer and an OSI investigator showed up at Palij’s house, sat down at a dining room table and talked about Palij’s wartime activities, which Drimmer had listed on a yellow legal pad.

At the end of the interview, Palij signed a sworn statement, acknowledging his service during the war.

District Judge Allyne R. Ross stripped Palij of his citizenship in 2003, citing Palij’s statement and five volumes of historical documents submitted by prosecutors. Palij “does not submit a single affidavit affirming his innocence,” Ross wrote in her opinion.

A year later, an immigration judge ordered Palij to leave the country.

Friedman, the rabbi from Long Island, has organized protests in front of Palij’s house every year since. As the dean of Rambam Mesivta, a private Jewish high school on Long Island, Friedman has involved a generation of students.

“It’s wildly unfair that this Nazi gets to evade justice and live in this great country for all these years, and thousands of people, Americans and Jews, all died,” said 15-year-old Avi Koenig. “They couldn’t live their lives while he gets to.”

In November, on the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht — when violence against Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues swept Nazi Germany — Friedman and dozens of students stood in front of Palij’s house, chanting and holding signs that read, “Your neighbor is a Nazi.”


Deflated balloons hang above the street where Palij lives. (Celeste Sloman/for The Washington Post)
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Friedman has been organizing protests to deport Nazi war criminals for more than two decades.

His parents met and fell in love on a forced-work detail at a factory near Krakow, Poland, during the war. At night, they were confined behind the barbed-wire fences of the Plaszow concentration camp, where thousands of people were shot and killed. After the war, newly orphaned, they married in a displaced-persons camp in Germany.

Friedman’s mother wore a dress stitched out of a white American parachute that she shared with other brides.

In his Long Island home, sitting near a portrait of his immigrant parents posing next to a Torah rescued from the war, about 15 miles from Palij’s house in Queens, Friedman said that it is long past time to bring Palij to justice.

“Get him out,” Friedman said. “He doesn’t belong here.”

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Photo Credit:  Shulamith Posner-Mansbach/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
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Tonight, and for the next seven nights, millions of Jews around the world will light a menorah to celebrate Hanukkah. Akiva Mansbach will be one of them. But his isn’t just any menorah. In its multigenerational life, its light has also touched the darkness.

In Kiel, Germany, in 1932, Rabbi Dr. Akiva Posner and his wife, Rachel, lit the menorah and placed it on their window sill. Directly across the street was a Nazi flag.

One of the essential components of Hanukkah is “persumei nisa,” or publicizing the miracle — the miracle being the triumph of a small band of Jews, the Maccabees, who led a revolt and conquered their Seleucid persecutors in the second century before the Common Era. As tradition has it, when the Holy Temple was being rededicated and its golden menorah lit, there was only enough oil to last for one day. Miraculously, the small supply burned for eight.

The Talmud contains detailed guidelines of how to publicize the miracle, with extensive commentary on where the menorah would be most visible to people walking by. The rabbis also discussed foot traffic in marketplaces: They wanted to make sure that people lit their candles when pedestrians were flooding the streets.

There’s one more crucial detail the rabbis insisted on: In a time of danger, they said, the lighting of the Hanukkah candles can take place in one’s home, on one’s table, away from the gaze of the hostile outside world.

But this escape clause didn’t suffice for the Posners. In 1932, just before Hitler’s rise to power, their menorah shone brightly for all their neighbors to see. Its light — and the meaning behind it — was made all the more incandescent given the symbol of Jew-hatred hanging from the building across the street.

The poignancy of the juxtaposition didn’t escape Rachel Posner. She took a photograph of the menorah and the swastika. On its back, she scribbled in German, “ ‘Death to Judah’ so the flag says, ‘Judah will live forever,’ so the light answers.”

Rabbi Posner, Rachel and their three children left Germany for the Holy Land in 1933. Rabbi Posner managed to persuade many of his congregants to leave as well.

For 51 weeks of the year, the menorah belongs to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. But each year, right before Hanukkah, the family takes the menorah back and puts it to good use.

I spoke by phone with the Posners’ great-grandson, Akiva Baruch Mansbach, who was named for Rabbi Posner and lights the menorah every year. The significance of lighting it in his home in Beit Shemesh, Israel, so many decades after his ancestors lit it as an act of resistance, did not escape him. “The same light that my great-grandparents lit in the exile in Germany is the light that so many light today in Israel,” he told me. “It demonstrates the continuity of Jewish history.”

“Whether it’s the Greeks on Hanukkah or the Nazis in Germany, they want the same thing — to destroy the nation of Israel,” he added. The menorah symbolizes the strength and continuity of our nation, the idea that it is strong and will conquer all its enemies.”

On where that strength resides, Mr. Mansbach was unambiguous. “Until 70 years ago, we were in exile,” he said. “That exile ended with the establishment of the state.”

Maybe so. But many Jews still live in the diaspora, including more than six million here in America. Even now, we are lucky to live in a place where what constituted an act of defiance for Akiva and Rachel Posner can exist here as a quotidian exercise of religious freedom. But as the Hanukkah story also reminds us, that freedom can vanish almost overnight. In this year more than most, it needs to be defended against the old-new bigotries that would extinguish its light.

Wishing you a Happy Hanukkah and a wonderful holiday season

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On behalf of our Survivors, Liberators, volunteers and staff at the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center we wish all of you a Happy Hanukkah and a wonderful holiday season. It is time for family and friends to share memories, make new memories and just kick back and have some fun. Let’s hope it doesn’t involve too much snow!
Chuck Feldman 
President HAMEC 

Human remains left exposed as Jewish cemetery dug up for Polish supermarket

A skull inspected after being found in piles of earth removed for a new shop in Siemiatycze CREDIT: ALEKSANDER SCHWARZ
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Poland’s chief rabbi has said he has been left speechless after human remains were left in piles of earth during work to lay new power cables next to an old Jewish cemetery.

The incident took place in Siemiatycze, a town in eastern Poland that was once home to over 4,000 Jews before the Holocaust.

“There are no words to describe how this is possible today in a free, democratic Poland,” said Rabbi Michael Schudrich, adding that it was “the worst desecration of a Jewish cemetery” that he has seen since assuming his post 17 years ago.

Piotr Siniakowicz, the town’s mayor, described Rabbi Schudrich’s words as “too strong” and stressed that the town took care of the Jewish cemetery. The town’s council also said it was eager to work with the Jewish community to resolve the situation.

All work on the site, which is privately owned and lies adjacent to the cemetery, has now stopped, and prosecutors have launched an investigation into whether the company involved in the excavation broke laws prohibiting the violation of human remains. The bones unearthed by the digging have been handed over to a Jewish organisation for re-burial.

The supermarket building and parking lot are being built on the site of an old Jewish cemetery
The supermarket building and parking lot are being built on the site of an old Jewish cemeteryCREDIT:  ALEKSANDER SCHWARZ/AP
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“We have to be careful and respectful of a sight of heritage. Clearly there has been a significant mistake, and a problem,” said Jonny Daniels, the head of From the Depths, an international organization dealing with Holocaust, memory and memorial that has carried out extensive work in Poland.

He added that his organisation would be in contact with the local community and the authorities to “make sure any damage is repaired and such cases don’t happen again.”

A skull can be seen amid the piles of earth removed from the site of the cemetary
A skull can be seen amid the piles of earth removed from the site of the cemetary CREDIT:ALEKSANDER SCHWARZ/ AP
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The incident reflects the difficulties Poland still faces in dealing with the some of the legacies of the Holocaust.

During the war the Nazis destroyed the majority of Poland’s Jewish cemeteries. After the return of peace, and with the overwhelming majority of the country’s Jewish population dead, the few cemeteries that had survived, and the remnants of those destroyed, fell into disrepair and were lost to nature.

Stumbling my way through Berlin, recognizing victims of the Holocaust

 

Stumbling stones in Berlin memorialize Irma, Karla and Ellen Rosenthal, who were murdered in Auschwitz.

Photo:  Creative Commons

Artist Gunter Demnig has made it his mission to remind people of the horrors of the Holocaust, one victim at a time.

Michael Meyer, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh,  is the author of the newly published book, “The Road to Sleeping Dragon: Learning China from the Ground Up.”

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On an otherwise gray Berlin sidewalk, the cobblestones shone like a pair of gold fillings, halting me in my tracks. The 4-inch brass squares were set flush in the walkway fronting shoe shops and a Starbucks. One square bore a carved inscription that read, in German: “Here lived Paula Davidsohn, born 1905 in Berlin, deported in 1943, died in Auschwitz.” Nestled against her plaque was a cobblestone inscribed with the name of her son, Ury, also killed in Auschwitz in 1943, the year he was born.

Berlin has 8,000 of these small memorials, called stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones.” The name evokes an obstacle, leading to an accidental discovery. They upended my weekend: I tossed out planned museum visits and instead hunted stolpersteine across Berlin, spying their brassy glint down quaint residential streets and amid crowded shopping plazas.

World War II, rendered in my mind as a distant event in black-and-white, was suddenly near. The Holocaust, the murder of 6 million people, is incomprehensible, but the stolpersteine evoke individual victims. “If you read the name of one person,” their creator said, “calculate his age, look at his old home and wonder behind which window he used to live, then the horror has a face to it.”

Stolpersteine began not with a government commission but as an individual act of civil disobedience. Twenty-five years ago, on Dec. 16, 1992, the 50th anniversary of the “Auschwitz Decree,” artist Gunter Demnig carved Himmler’s deportation order into a brass cobblestone and illegally mortared it into the pavement in front of Cologne City Hall.

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Born in Berlin shortly after the war, Mr. Demnig then returned to his hometown to install stones bearing the names of Holocaust victims — most of them Jews, but also Roma, Sinti, gays and dissidents. He set the stones into the sidewalk in front of each victim’s last known residence.

“The Talmud holds that a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten,” Mr. Demnig wrote on his website, where he takes requests from victims’ kin to create a stolpersteine, then enlists local schoolchildren to research biographical details. Each cobblestone costs $141.

“In a way, my stolpersteine are small,” Mr. Demnig recently said. And yet, he continued, in their own way the stones are bigger than any monument, including the $29 million Holocaust Memorial near the Brandenburg Gate, a field of undulating slabs built where the villa of Hitler’s propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, once stood.

“That is a memorial in the center of the city. I’m all over Germany. North, south, east and west.” (Only Munich bans the cobblestones; city leaders ruled they are too reminiscent of the Nazi-era practice of looting Jewish cemeteries and paving sidewalks with their tombstones.) “The stones are in front of houses where the people lived, where people live. Every time you step you have to look.”

All museums tell stories, often political ones. I spent much of my adult life in China, where “patriotic education bases” whitewash the past to depict historical events as leading inevitably to to communist “liberation.” The stones of Tiananmen Square, for instance, were recently laid — to erase the damage from the tanks that soldiers drove through the square to bloodily quash the 1989 democracy protests. Young Chinese today know little of the Tiananmen movement beyond the official verdict that the government was forced to put down a “counter-revolutionary riot.”

Russia, too, is afflicted with selective amnesia. The Kremlin has branded the grassroots group Memorial a “foreign agent” and raided its offices. Its members nonetheless recently gathered in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square to continue reading aloud the names of the 40,000 Russians executed during Stalin’s purges. Efforts to place plaques similar to stolpersteine at the Moscow homes of these victims have created dissention. The director of the city’s new Gulag Museum said it, too, faced opposition when it opened. “No one has ever forced us to face up to what happened.”

This fall’s German elections put before voters a xenophobic party whose leader said in a campaign speech that Germany should be done atoning for its past, that Germans “have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.” In September, the party — the Alternative for Germany, or AfD — won the third-largest share of votes and 94 seats in the Bundestag. For the first time in six decades, a far-right party has power in Berlin.

Museums and memorials to terrible events often instruct visitors to never forget. But what does it take to actively remember? When present-day political events sink my spirits, I think of Gunter Demnig and his quiet, defiant determination to bear witness to atrocities that took place before he was born.

Last year, dressed in a denim work shirt and Indiana Jones fedora, the 70-year-old Mr. Demnig spent 258 days in his minivan, driving around Europe to mortar stolpersteine. Over the past 25 years, he has installed 66,000 of them.

“Each stone in a way is like my baby,” he said. “Each imprint is one person. I will be doing this until the end of my life.”

HAMEC contributors go over the top on Giving Tuesday.

The Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center would like to say THANK YOU to everyone who helped make this year’s #GivingTuesday campaign a huge success! We blew away our goal of $5,000 and raised a total of $8,581 in just one day!

Thank you for recognizing that our work is so critical — today, more than ever. With your help we can replace hatred and bigotry with love and tolerance through education. Every single donation helps us reach more students in our own backyard and across the globe.

We are committed to sharing our message with as many students as possible. So far this year, in the Greater Philadelphia area alone, we completed 277 programs, reaching 34,472 students, gave 47 guided tours of the museum, trained 209 teachers, and additionally conducted 72 Skype in the classroom
programs around the world.

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Your gifts help us bring our 32 survivors, 5 liberators, and 1 resistor into schools, synagogues, churches, and other institutions every day.

Our programs change lives. But we cannot do this important work without your generous support.

If we missed you on #GivingTuesday, don’t worry! There are still ways you can help! Donations are always being accepted through our website. What a great way to get that tax write off before the end of the year!  Donate through PayPal.  Click here. 

Also, we could still use your vote on our submission to #MyGivingStory. One lucky non-profit with the most votes will win $10K from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Won’t you help us with your vote? Please cast your vote for HAMEC once a day through Dec. 7 and share! Vote here:
http://bit.ly/2kboJVV
With much gratitude,

HAMEC

Hate never takes a vacation and neither do we.  

Our Holocaust Survivors and Liberators are available to address your school, civic organization or congregation.  We are available live or worldwide via Skype.  Contact us at info@hamec.org or 215-464-4701.

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