During my formal interview for U.S. citizenship, not so long ago, I remember the interviewing officer looking me in the eye and asking if I’d ever had any affiliations with the Nazi German regime. “Um, er … no,” I replied, smiling a bit awkwardly. “Y’know, I’ve gotta ask,” she replied, shaking her head gently.
But 70 years ago, that was a deadly serious question—and yet it wasn’t taken very seriously by the authorities. At a time when thousands of Holocaust survivors were denied entry to the United States, thousands of Nazis and their allies—from leading regime scientists to petty (relatively speaking) local collaborators—gained entry to this country.
Something of a line was drawn under that scandal this week, when the 95-year-old man known as “the last living Nazi in New York” was removed from his home in Queens, N.Y., by FBI officers, who carried him by stretcher onto the plane that deported him to Germany. The American sojourn of Ukrainian-born Jakiw Palij began in 1949, when he arrived in this country falsely presenting himself as a “Polish farmer.” Granted citizenship in 1957, it was finally revoked in 2003 after U.S. investigators established that Palij had served as an armed guard at the Nazi-run Trawniki slave labor camp in Poland. But deportation did not follow because no country was willing to take him—until, that is, Germany stepped up to the plate this week.
By 1943, when Palij was deployed at Trawniki, the place had evolved from a training and prisoner of war camp into a slave labor center, producing mattresses and furs for the German company F.W. Schultz and Co. The SS criminals running the camp even set up a holding company to manage their contracts with Schultz and other “clients.” But later that year, an uprising of Jewish prisoners in the Sobibor death camp accelerated the murder of Jewish inmates in other parts of Nazi-occupied Poland. On Nov. 3, 1943—in what the veteran U.S. Justice Department pursuer of Nazis, Eli Rosenbaum, this week described as “a daylong killing spree of unfathomable ruthlessness and horror”—6,000 Jewish women, men and children were massacred at Trawniki by the Germans and their local auxiliaries.
There is, on one of the many small Holocaust commemoration sites on the Internet, a list of the SS men and their Ukrainian allies at Trawniki. The list begins with the leading personnel at the camp—SS officers like Franz Bartezko and Karl Streibel—and ends with the names of more than 50 Ukrainians who served as guards alongside the Nazis, including Jakiw Palij. He may have been low down in the camp hierarchy, but he was present when, to cite Eli Rosenbaum again, that “ghastly paroxysm of genocidal mass murder occurred.”
Did Palij, during the 15 years he spent in Queens stripped of his citizenship without being deported, ever show any remorse for his crime? Not likely. In his view, he was just as much a victim as the Jews in whose deaths he assisted. ‘”I know what they say, but I was never a collaborator,” he told The New York Times in 2003. Had he not worked in Trawniki, he insisted, the Germans “would [have] kill[ed] me and my family. I did it to save their lives, and I never even wore a Nazi uniform.”
Ten years later, Palij was saying much the same. “I am not SS, I have nothing to do with SS,” he told two reporters from The New York Post in November 2013 who came to cover one of the several demonstrations outside Palij’s house organized by the local Jewish community. He even played the sympathy card. “My wife, she passed away two months ago,” he said. “She told me not to blame these children coming here and calling me a Nazi. They are just doing what they are taught to do. But the grown men? They talk nonsense.”
Palij’s excuses, of course, have been heard hundreds of times from other Nazi collaborators in Europe, who say that their complicity in the murder of Jews was the price of staying alive under Nazi occupation. More recently, that has been accompanied by a tendency among governments in the region—with the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia among the worst offenders in this regard—to publicly honor certain Nazi collaborators on the grounds that they were also heroic anti-Soviet resistance fighters. Through this revision of history, the murder of 6 million Jews becomes just one of many examples of inhumanity during the Second World War, rather than the driving obsession and ultimate goal of the Nazi regime.
Hence the significance of what looked, on the surface, like the belated, perhaps even pointless, delivery of justice to an old man who will likely not live much longer. One of Palij’s neighbors in Queens, Jason Quijano, put it nicely in a press interview: “I’m not somebody that wishes anybody any harm, but if he has to face justice now, I think it’s something that has to happen. You can’t hide from anything in this world. It will come back to you.”
In Germany, where Palij will see out his remaining days, he will be treated humanely, and given all the attention that a person his age requires to maintain their comfort and dignity. That, most probably, will be the last lesson this monster receives in the merits of the civilization that he fought in the name of barbarism.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.