BERLIN — Jakiw Palij, a former Nazi concentration camp guard who lived an unassuming life in New York City for decades until his past was revealed and he was deported to Germany last year, has died, German media reported Thursday. He was 95.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Westfaelische Nachrichten newspapers independently quoted German officials saying Palij died Wednesday in a care home in the town of Ahlen.
U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell, who lobbied for Germany to take Palij, said he’d been informed of the death. He credited U.S. President Donald Trump with seeing through Palij’s August 2018 deportation after it had been stalled for a quarter-century.
“It would have been upsetting to many Americans if he had died in the U.S in what many viewed as a comfortable escape,” Grenell told The Associated Press.
Palij was the last Nazi facing deportation from the United States when he was taken from his Queens home on a stretcher and put on a plane to Germany.
From the time American investigators first accused him of lying about his Nazi past, it took 25 years for his removal from United States despite political pressure and frequent protests outside his home. He was not prosecuted in Germany and spent his last months in the nursing home.
Palij, an ethnic Ukrainian born in a part of Poland that is now Ukraine, entered the U.S. in 1949 under the Displaced Persons Act, a law meant to help refugees from postwar Europe.
He told immigration officials he worked during the war in a woodshop and farm in Nazi-occupied Poland, as well as at another farm in Germany and finally in a German upholstery factory.
Palij said he never served in the military. In reality, the U.S. Justice Department said he played an essential role in the Nazi program to exterminate Jews as an armed guard at the Trawniki training camp, southeast of Lublin in German-occupied Poland.
When investigators knocked on his door in 1993, he told them: “I would never have received my visa if I told the truth. Everyone lied.”
According to a Justice Department complaint, Palij served in a unit that “committed atrocities against Polish civilians and others” and then in the notorious SS Streibel Battalion, “a unit whose function was to round up and guard thousands of Polish civilian forced laborers.”
Palij served at Trawniki in 1943, the same year 6,000 prisoners in the camps and tens of thousands of other prisoners held in occupied Poland were rounded up and slaughtered.
Palij eventually acknowledged serving in Trawniki but denied any involvement in war crimes. The U.S. lacks jurisdiction to prosecute such cases since the crimes were not committed in the United States and the victims were not Americans. Instead, it has focused on revoking the U.S. citizenship of suspects and deporting them — or extraditing them if another country is seeking to prosecute them.
A judge stripped Palij of his U.S. citizenship in 2003 for “participation in acts against Jewish civilians.” He was ordered deported a year later. But because Germany, Poland, Ukraine and other countries refused to take him, he continued living in limbo in the two-story, red brick home in Queens he shared with his now-late wife, Maria.
After a diplomatic push, the U.S. finally convinced Germany last year to take Palij. However, German investigators concluded there was not enough evidence of wartime criminal activity to bring charges against him.
“Good riddance to this war criminal,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, after Palij’s deportation was announced.
Palij managed to live quietly in the U.S. for years, as a draftsman and then as a retiree, until a fellow former guard told Canadian authorities in 1989 that he was “living somewhere in America.”
Investigators asked Russia and other countries for records on Palij beginning in 1990 and first confronted him in 1993. It wasn’t until after a second interview in 2001 that he signed a document acknowledging he had been a guard at Trawniki and a member of the Streibel Battalion.
Palij suggested at one point during the interview that he was threatened with death if he refused to work as a guard, saying, “If you don’t show up, boom-boom.”
As his case languished, his continued presence in New York City outraged many, especially members of the Jewish community. The frequent protests outside his home featured chants such as “Your neighbor is a Nazi!”
In 2017, all 29 members of New York’s congressional delegation signed a letter urging the State Department to follow through on his deportation.