The Trump administration deported a 95-year-old Nazi to Germany early Tuesday morning, ending nearly two decades of investigation, legal battles and thorny negotiations to find another country willing to take him.
Jakiw Palij, the last Nazi from World War II known to be living in the U.S., had admitted he was a guard at an SS labor camp during one of the most horrific mass murders of Jews during the war. He’d finally been stripped of American citizenship in 2003, but the Bush and Obama administrations had struggled to find a country willing to take him back.
Officials said his ouster now is a victory for President Trump, a big boost for the embattled officers at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and a global statement of American values.
“They’ve been trying to get him out for decades. President Obama tried, they all tried. We got him out. Gone,” Mr. Trump said at a campaign rally in West Virginia Tuesday night. “He’s back in Germany.”
The White House announced the move in a statement from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at 3 a.m., drawing applause from communities that have been pressing for action for years.
“New York’s Nazi is gone,” tweeted Dov Hikind, a New York assemblyman who annually led a rally outside of Palij’s home demanding his deportation.
Palij had come to the U.S. in 1949 and won citizenship in 1957, telling officials he had worked on a farm and in a factory during the war. He’d been living quietly in Queens, New York, until a Justice Department investigator showed up at his door in 2001 accusing him of Nazi involvement.
He admitted that he trained at an SS training camp in Trawniki, Poland, in 1943, and also served as a guard at the Trawniki labor camp — though he denied being involved in murder.
During a trial to revoke his citizenship the government argued that men training at the Trawniki camp were part of Operation Reinhard, the Nazi plan to annihilate Polish Jews. And the labor camp was the site of one of the worst mass murders of Jews, with 6,000 men women and children executed on Nov. 3, 1943. The government says he “played an indispensable role” in the killing.
The judge agreed, and issued a judgment stripping citizenship from Palij.
He was then ordered deported in 2004, to any country that would take him. Yet neither the Bush nor Obama administrations were able to get it done, despite intense pressure from Jewish leaders and members of Congress from New York.
Germany had resisted taking him back, since he wasn’t a German citizen — he was born in territory that was then part of Poland, and now part of Ukraine. Neither of those countries would accept him, either.
But after long negotiations Germany’s foreign ministry caved, acknowledging a “moral responsibility” stemming from past Nazi crimes.
Palij’s fate in Germany remains unclear, with officials there saying his admission that he trained at an SS camp didn’t necessarily connect him to specific murders.
Treatment of Nazis who managed to reach the U.S. has long been controversial.
The government stood up a special office in 1979 to pursue cases against Nazis, and has won cases against 108 people since then. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a part of Homeland Security, is also involved now, with the establishment in 2008 of its Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center.
That division pursues people involved in genocide and war crimes who have managed to reach the U.S. — many of them winning citizenship by lying about their activities.
Perhaps the most famous Nazi ouster came in 2009, when the U.S. finally deported John Demjanjuk, who the government proved in court was an SS guard at the Sobibor death camp, as well as several concentration camps. He also served at Trawniki’s training and labor camps, the government says.
Demjanjuk had first been targeted in the 1980s, when he was extradited to Israel to face charges as the man suspected of being “Ivan the Terrible,” a notorious guard at Treblinka. The Israeli high court found reasonable doubt about his identity and he was shipped back to the U.S. in 1993.
But the U.S. brought a new case against him in 1999, based on new documents from archives that became public after the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.
He was finally deported to Germany in 2009.