Nazi hunter breathes 'a sigh of relief' after former concentration camp guard deported

Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff said he's glad the U.S. has finally succeeded in deporting a former concentration camp guard who had been living in the country for almost seven decades.

Jakiw Palij lived in the U.S. for 69 years — even after authorities uncovered his Nazi past

In this Monday frame from video, Jakiw Palij, a former Nazi concentration camp guard, is carried on a stretcher from his home in the Queens borough of New York. (ABC via Associated Press)
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Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff said he's glad the U.S. has finally succeeded in deporting a 95-year-old former concentration camp guard because "old age should certainly not afford protection for people who committed such heinous crimes."

Jakiw Palij was deported to Germany on Tuesday, 69 years after he arrived on American soil and 25 years after investigators first confronted him about his Nazi past.

Palij lied to get into the U.S. by claiming he spent the war as a farmer and factory worker. A judge stripped his American citizenship in 2003 for "participation in acts against Jewish civilians" in 1943 the Trawniki camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, where an estimated 12,000 Jews were rounded up and slaughtered.

Palij has acknowledged serving in Trawniki, but denied any involvement in war crimes.

Because Palij is an ethnic Ukrainian born in a part of Poland that is now Ukraine, deporting him proved a challenge. For decades, neither Germany, Poland nor Ukraine would take him, so he lived for decades in the two-story, red brick home in New York City he shared with his late wife, Maria.

Zuroff, who works for the Jerusalem-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann he's glad Zuroff's days as a New Yorker are over. 

Here is part of their conversation. 

Jakiw Palij landed today Germany on a deportation order that took 14 years to carry out. How do you feel about that?

I breathe a sigh of relief that this very long campaign to kick him out of the United States has finally succeeded. 

Why did it take so long for him to be deported?

In Germany they, for many years, did not take anyone who was not a German or a Volksdeutsche — that's someone of German origin who is living in Eastern Europe.

As far as the Poles were concerned, there were no live witnesses who could testify as to Palij's active participation in the crimes.

As far Ukraine was concerned, Ukraine has a terrible record in dealing with Nazi war criminals. There hasn't been a single Nazi war criminal who's ever been even investigated, let alone prosecuted in Ukraine since that country obtained independence in 1990.

Palij is pictured in a 1949 visa photo. The former Nazi guard lied about his role in the Second World War in order to get into the U.S. (U.S. Department of Justice via Reuters)

Can I just ask a bit more about the Trawniki camp. It was a labour camp. Who were the victims?

There were two camps there. One was an SS training camp and one was a concentration camp.

The victims in the concentration camp were 12,000 Jews who had been deported to Trawniki from different places in Poland and who were murdered on Nov. 3, 1943.

On that day, there were mass murders in many different camps in the Lublin area. That was one of them. And all those Jewish inmates of that camp were murdered on that day.

Do you have any indication as to what role Mr. Palij might have played in that killing?

I personally don't, but I didn't work on the case.

Students protest across the street from the Palij's Queens, N.Y., home, on Nov. 9, 2017. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

What changed after all these years of Germany resisting, of the U.S. hitting these roadblocks. What changed that's now got him back in Germany?

Two things changed. First of all, there's a new American ambassador in Germany, Ambassador [Richard] Grenell, who took a very proactive stance on this issue.

And there's a different president in the White House.

And you don't think it would have happened without those men?

Apparently not. Look, the Obama administration had eight years to do it and they didn't do a thing. It was never a priority for them.

In Germany now, local media is reporting that Mr.  Palij is going to be put in a long-term care home. As you know, he is 95. Do you think he will ever face trial?

Far stranger things have happened than someone 95 years old surviving another several years.

General view of the main square in Ahlen, Germany, where Palij has been taken to a home for the elderly. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

Do you think there is enough evidence at this point in history to convict him?

The question revolves around one basic question, which is: Will service in Trawniki be treated by the German authorities like service in Auschwitz, or not?

If it will be treated in the same way, Mr. Palij can be convicted not of murder, but of accessory to murder. If not, it's unlikely that he'll be prosecuted in Germany.

How important is it to you that he is not going to die in the United States?

Every step that's taken against these people — who, by the way, are the last people on Earth who deserve any sympathy whatsoever, because they had absolutely no sympathy for the victims, some of whom were even older than they are today — is a positive step in my eyes.

Every such step sends a message that, if you commit crimes like this, even many years later, there will be someone who tries to hold you responsible.

Every trial of a person like this helps in the fight against Holocaust denial and Holocaust distortion.

This is something that we owe to the victims. The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers, and old age should certainly not afford protection for people who committed such heinous crimes.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.