Nazi SS guard case raises question: Is there an age limit on justice?

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thumbRNSDEMJANJUKOBIT0316121-624x457Today’s news prompts a flashback for me.

It’s a story about a court order to deport an elderly man, Johann Breyer, who once聽served at Nazi death camp, a聽whose history, now revealed, shocked his Philadelphia neighbors.

We’ve heard this one before, more than once.

In the 90s, the headlines were about John Demjanek who — to obtain entry and eventually citizenship in the U.S. — lied about his service at three concentration camps, including the notorious Treblinka, where 900,000 people, chiefly Jews, were murdered during WWII. He lost the last of decades of appeals, was deported and convicted of war crimes in trials in Israel and Germany where he died in 2012.

But my experience with death camp guards living among us goes back to the early 1980s. The U.S. Government was investigating several cases of several men and a few women who had hidden their past as Nazi collaborators to start new lives in America. The Immigration and Naturalization Service showed photos several guards at Treblinka to Holocaust survivors. Demjunak’s photo was next to one of Feodor Fedorenko.

Fedorenko.聽I met him. I did the only interview he ever gave to the media before he was arrested, living among elderly Jewish people on South Miami Beach. We shook hands. It was the kind of courtesy you’d give anyone you meet, anyone who gave you a glass of ice water in his kitchen and showed you photos of his grandchildren. Anyone who proclaimed his innocence.

I still remember, coming back to the office to write my exclusive profile. A co-worker asked, “How could you shake his hand!”

“Innocent until proven guilty,” I quipped. “If he’s convicted, I can always cut my hand off.”

I covered the trial and Fedorenko’s appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against him.

Fedorenko always claimed he was just a poor Russian captured by the Germans and forced to be a Guard to stay alive. I heard the witnesses describe how he wore a uniform, carried a rifle, enjoyed days off with pay in nearby towns.

Fedorenko ultimately appealed to the Supreme Court. He always said he came to America because the Russians would execute him as a Nazi collaborator, if he were sent back for trial.

He was right. The Supreme Court ruled against him. He was extradited to Russia.

One summer day in 1987, the New York Times carried the news of his execution.

That day, my conversation with my co-worker came flooding back to me as I stood in the ladies room, washing and washing my hands. And every minute I talked to Fedorenko returned to me.

A simple grandfather. A health buff who worked out well into his 70s — often on the sands of South Miami Beach amid elderly Jewish neighbors.

A man with an untroubled conscience until I came to his door and asked, “Why are people saying these terrible things about you?”

Some people say justice half a century late is too late. Let these old people die in the comfort of the family and friends built up in decades of quiet life in America.

Others say there is no end to the need to bring justice, to honor the slaughtered. The German constitution did not permit capital punishment so Demjanek lived into his 90s. Is that the fate that awaits Johann Breyer ? He acknowledges he was an SS guard at Auschwitz, sporting the skull-and-crossbones insignia. He says he was just a perimeter guard, helpless cog in the machinery.

We know this story.

  • Lles Nats

    I think the more appropriate point to question is this…will you be held personally accountable for your actions while under the direction of your government?

    I think the answer is totally relative. It depends on how strong your government will be throughout your life.

    Its another example of why, just last week, obama asked for complete legal amnesty for all the soldiers he just sent to iraq. Yes…we are doing that again…under a democrat this time. Red or blue, all the same.

  • Larry

    I guess you didn’t get the memo.

    “I was only following orders” is not a good excuse. Hasn’t been since 1945.

    Many Christians feel that moral decisions can be outsourced to arbitrary authority figures without personal reflection, question or forethought. When it comes to crimes against humanity, that simply will not do. One is always expected to exercise their conscience, even when authority tells you otherwise. Even soldiers.

    It doesn’t matter whether your leader tells you or you think God tells you. You are responsible for the actions you perform.

    “obama asked for complete legal amnesty for all the soldiers he just sent to iraq”

    Do you have a link to the story? I am curious about that. Its news to me 馃檪

  • The Great God Pan

    I don’t have any problem with him being deported, but it is kind of interesting how we hold guards responsible for the Holocaust while we were perfectly happy to assist higher-ups–including the likes of Klaus Barbie–escape justice via so-called “ratlines” out of Germany. If only Mr. Breyer had been MORE instrumental in the systematic slaughter of millions of people, we could have helped him out!

  • Lles Nats

    I would agree with you, if it were universally applicable. Its not. As such, its just the witch hunt of a group of powerful jewish groups.

    Every actually talked to an american marine? Man, they are proud to proclaim themselves non thinking machines for their gov. They don’t hide it at all. And what of the IDF and their stealing/killing/detentions? Will they ever be on the side of judgement later in their lives for their crimes?

    Like I said, it all depends on how powerful your former master is later in life.

  • Lles Nats

    Does RNS allow links? I dunno. And I post comments from my phone, and am not that sophisticated as to copy a link on my phone and post it. But I saw the obama amnesty request just last week on yahoo news. A search of “obama requests amnesty for iraq trooops” should pull it up.

  • Larry

    Claiming someone else is doing something wrong does not absolve one’s own acts. (Except in the case of Admiral Doenitz, his excuse was REALLLY good).

    There is no witch hunt here. If they are the people they are alleged to be, they committed crimes which there is no real proportionate punishment. Its called crimes against humanity for a reason. Some acts just can not be excused.

    “Every actually talked to an american marine? ”

    Obviously you haven’t!

    Every member of our military understands the duty to follow orders ends with illegal orders and committing atrocities. You insult and defame our military by characterizing them as people who will kill wantonly and commit war crimes because they are ordered to.

    We are not Nazis, nor ever are expected to act like them.

    You can cut and paste links. As for Obama, you are mischaracterizing the story. The government is looking to keep the troops being sent there now, to defend Baghdad, from being subject to Iraqi courts. This has nothing to do with the World Court or allegations of recognized crimes against humanity. Not even close to a decent analogy.

  • Larry

    Technically unless he was part of the CIA program that undermined immigration law in the late 40’s, Breyer had no business being let into the country in the first place.

    Known members of the SS, KGB, NKVD, and other apparatus of repressive states are not allowed to enter the country.

  • Lles Nats

    Your a loon in your own world.

    Just yesterday I drove behind a truck on the freeway with marine and simperfi bumper stickers all over the back….you know, the only valid means of political expression americans have these days. And he had an amazing one. Was a picture silhouette of a shooting soldier saying “if you dont behind for us, you can stand in front of us”.

    I was amused. It implies he was always shooting, and indiscriminately.

    And of course pointing out the crimes of another does not excuse your own. But that wasn’t my point. My point is that what we do with old germans isn’t done universally, therefore its biased and relative. I dont think you countered my point. Only attempted misdirection.

  • Larry

    You are self-absorbed and blitheringly ignorant at the same time. You call a bumper sticker, “talking to someone”? Good grief! I was right on that count. You don’t really know squat about the military.

    Every soldier, sailor or airman can quote you verbatim about what the UCMJ says about following illegal orders. It is drummed into everyone in the service from the lowliest enlisted person to chiefs of staff. This is why we prosecute our own soldiers when they commit atrocities.

    “My point is that what we do with old germans isn鈥檛 done universally, therefore its biased and relative”

    Not really. You are ignorant of these things as well. The closest thing we came to excusing a war criminal was Wernher Von Braun, father of the US space program. Von Braun was never indicted by the Nuremberg Tribunal.

    No SS guards or really anyone involved in death camp operations was excused by us or any western allies. At best we kept on people who had value in intelligence work against the USSR (big mistake on our part) or were useful in the post-war government. Even then it was an embarrassment.

    These old nazi war criminals described in the article are eligible for deportation under our immigration laws. They were forbidden to even enter the US legally. [That is except for those few who were brought in by the government as I mentioned above. Breyer isn’t one of those.]

  • Lles Nats

    How is it blogger larry always seems to post lastand no reply button I available? Admin control?

  • The Great God Pan

    Yes, that would be one theory. The kind of theory favored by paranoid types who live in fear of “the bankers.”

    Another theory would be that RNS’s commenting platform only allows you to reply to posts that are nested to three levels or fewer, so as to prevent threads from becoming so nested that comments end up being four words wide and thirty lines long.

    I wonder which is more likely.

  • Larry

    Lles, you are right. I am secretly working for the Zionist Occupation Government and the Elders of Zion (see their Protocols). It is part of a dastardly plan to prevent you from making further replies on RNS. They have a special department that was assigned just for your postings.

    Before this assignment I was working with quality control at the factories making passover matzoh from the blood of unbaptized Christian babies with side work underwriting interest-only homeowners loans.

    My big break was as a gofer for the Mossad and George W. Bush when they planned 9/11. Mossad agents liked their coffee black no sugar, Bush preferred his light and 2 Sweet and Low.


  • Lles Nats

    I knew it!

  • Fran

    There are criminals who have turned their lives around after being remorseful for past bad deeds, but no man can read a person’s heart to make any judgments for justice to be done… Only God and his son, Jesus, can.

    There are also those Christian individuals who refuse to enter military service because their Bible-trained consciences will not allow them to kill their fellowman; yet, they are serving prison terms by the government for their stand.

    The Sanhedrin ordered the apostles to stop teaching the people on the basis of Jesus’ name. Peter and the apostles said “We must obey God as ruler rather than men” (Acts 5:37-29) and continued preaching in spite of facing persecution and imprisonment.

    We all have the free will to choose who we will obey every day of our lives. Jesus instructs us to pay Caesar’s things to Caesar and God’s things to God (Mark 12:17). However, when man’s laws are in conflict with God’s laws, I will chose to do God’s will, as Peter and the apostles did.

  • Ian

    While – obviously – I abhor the horrors of the Holocaust, I do have some sense of sympathy for individuals such as this. While I do not excuse what they did or what they participated in, I do often see the reality that many of these people were young men pulled into national service and assigned to duties which they had little control over. Naturally, we can condemn them for their role, but we have to wonder: what would we have done? Would we have thrown our weapons down and said “no! I will not complete my assignment!” at the risk of imprisonment or death?

    I’d like to say yes, but I suspect the reality is that if we’re honest with ourselves many of us would say no. We’d make excuses and move on. Think about the American air crews who dropped atomic bombs on Japan killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people. We’re quick to say “I’m sorry that so many people died, but that had to happen – they were just doing their job”. Why should the sentiment be any different here?

    The reality is that we should despise sin. We should despise killing in all forms. But we should look with sympathy at humanity for we are all sinners. We all fall short. We are all guilty. We are all weak.

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  • Stephen Lewis

    “We know this story”…yes, we do, thanks to Jews keeping the scab from ever healing as other ethnic groups experiencing horrible genocide had done and moved on. It doesn’t do anything but remind people that crime pays when Jewish Nazi hunters find one of these old men most whom were just teenage Nazis who have already had their decent lives after successfully fleeing Europe. To imprison them as they are naturally dying off of old age means only the victims are still victimizing themselves–needlessly and passing on a paranoid mindset to future generations instead of HEALING, Abuntu. And please, not a single anti-Semitic remark aimed at me with most of my Jewish ancestry being Polish. Abuntu, peace and reconciliation, end of revenge by forgiveness of sins because as the post above shows, who of you is dishonoring the mass murderers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or Dresden? As a boy I remember looking at my father’s war photos of bombsite pictures taken as a B-24 bombadier of the holes in the ground, no standing building left of these cities, Dresden among them, not understanding what they meant until I became a teenager myself. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Peace and reconciliation, it is the only viable response to war crimes committed by brainwashed people.