Book Review | ‘Citizen 865’ Chronicles the Search for Hiding Nazis

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Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America

Citizen 865 cover artDebbie Cenziper

Hachette Books

By the mid-1970s, World War II had been over for three decades.

Nazi trials were over. The criminals at Nuremberg were long buried. Adolf Eichmann had been tried and executed. West Germany, the only “officially de-Nazified” nation in Europe, was making payments to survivors and emerging as Israel’s best friend in Europe.

A decade and half later the IDF would begin replacing its aging submarine force with the Dolphin Class, which would be built in Germany.

However, in Germany, the United States, Canada and elsewhere, former camp guards, SS troops, Gestapo thugs and other cold-blooded murderers lived freely, and with no fear of discovery, prosecution or penalty for their active (and usually enthusiastic) participation in the murder of millions of Jews and anyone else who did not fit into the Nazi vision of the new world order.

After the war, thousands of these war criminals made their way to the U.S., hiding and lying about their sadistic past. Men (and some women) who killed civilians with guns or herded them into cattle cars and then gas chambers, abandoned their uniforms, constructed a false narrative of merely being soldiers or office workers, and slipped unnoticed into the U.S. They often claimed to immigration officials that they also were victims of Nazi oppression.

Camp guards and murderers from Poland, Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia played on the virulent anti-Communism of the Cold War, claiming they would be oppressed by the Soviet Union if they were forced to return. What they did not say is that they would have been “oppressed” because they were actually vicious war criminals.

In 1978, with the sponsorship of U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman of Brooklyn, Congress passed, and President Jimmy Carter signed, legislation creating the Office of Special Investigations within the Department of Justice. The OSI was charged with finding Nazi war criminals who had lied about their wartime activities, taking away their citizenship and expelling them. The U.S. could not prosecute them for their murderous activities, but could deport them.

Debbie Cenziper’s brilliant new book, “Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America,” tells that story. She recounts how lawyers and historians went through mountains of documents to discover war criminals who lied their way into the United States and lived in comparative peace and prosperity — sometimes significant prosperity.

For example, Archbishop Valerian Trifa had been a leader of the Romanian Iron Guard which attacked Jews. “In the streets, Jews were stabbed beaten, shot, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. In a Bucharest slaughterhouse, they were murdered in a fashion intended to mock kosher butchering techniques, then left to hang on meat hooks.” Romanian authorities tried Trifa in absentia, sentencing him to life in prison. In the middle of his deportation hearing, he voluntarily surrendered his citizenship and left the U.S.

Cenziper also reminds us of the politics of deporting Nazis.

In the mid-1980s, leaders of the Reagan administration denounced the OSI for attempting to repatriate Karl Linnas, who had been convicted in absentia for murdering Jews in Estonia. Linnas had been the commandant of a concentration camp in Estonia. He lied about this when he emigrated here. Attorney General Edwin Meese tried to get Panama to accept him as a refugee, arguing that it was unfair to send him to the Soviet Union, where he might be executed for murdering Jews so long ago.

Patrick Buchanan, who later denied that Jews were gassed at Treblinka, denounced the OSI for “running down 70-year-old camp guards.” He attacked the Justice Department for “wallowing in the atrocities of a dead regime.” In 1987, Linnas was finally expelled to face justice in his homeland.

The most intriguing part of this book is Cenziper’s detailed account of Trawniki, a camp in Poland where the Nazis trained Poles, Ukrainians and Germans to be camp guards and executioners. Trawniki men were brought in to help complete the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and to exterminate the last Jews of Lublin.

Much of the book focuses on the decade-long trial against Jakob Reimer, a leader of murderers trained at Trawniki.

Reimer was a German- speaking Soviet soldier who became an enthusiastic killer of Jews after being captured by the Germans. For his service, he was given German citizenship toward the end of the war. He became Citizen 865. Despite his Nazi past, he managed to charm his way into the U.S. after the war.

In the early 1990s, the OSI moved against him with overwhelming evidence of his criminal past. But Judge Lawrence McKenna was skeptical. He asked the prosecutor: “I don’t suppose that I can convince you to leave this poor old man alone?”

But OSI lawyers would not leave Reimer alone, and McKenna heard the evidence, learned of the atrocities, and yet did nothing. But in 2002, after four years of waiting, McKenna finally acted, stripping Reimer of his citizenship and setting him up for deportation.

What changed?

According to Cenziper, the decision came down shortly after a Nazi hunter’s friend made a “discreet phone call to a reporter at the Wall Street Journal.” Fear of exposure finally led McKenna to act.

This is a powerful book and reads like a fast-paced mystery novel. But it is not fiction. It is a story and history worth reading and knowing. It reminds us of the truth of the prophet Amos: “And justice shall be revealed like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Paul Finkelman is the president of Gratz College, which will host Cenziper on Dec. 12 as the featured speaker for its Shusterman Distinguished Lecture.

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