Today’s news prompts a flashback for me.
It’s a story about a court order to deport an elderly man, Johann Breyer, who once served at Nazi death camp, a 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. 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.