OSIJEK, Croatia – Former Auschwitz guard Jakob Denzinger lived the U.S. dream.
His plastics company in the Rust Belt town of Akron, Ohio, thrived. By the late 1980s, he had acquired the trappings of success: a Cadillac DeVille and a Lincoln Town Car, a lakefront home, investments in oil and real estate.
Then the Nazi hunters showed up.
In 1989, as the U.S. government prepared to strip him of his citizenship, Denzinger packed a pair of suitcases and fled to Germany. Denzinger later settled in this pleasant town on the Drava River, where he lives comfortably, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers. He collects a Social Security payment of about $1,500 each month, nearly twice the take-home pay of an average Croatian worker.
Denzinger, 90, is among dozens of suspected Nazi war criminals and SS guards who collected millions of dollars in Social Security payments after being forced out of the United States, an Associated Press investigation found.
The payments flowed through a legal loophole that has given the U.S. Justice Department leverage to persuade Nazi suspects to leave. If they agreed to go, or simply fled before deportation, they could keep their Social Security, according to interviews and internal government records.
Like Denzinger, many lied about their Nazi pasts to get into the U.S. following World War II, and eventually became U.S. citizens.
Among those who benefited:
—armed SS troops who guarded the Nazi network of camps where millions of Jews perished.
—an SS guard who took part in the brutal liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland that killed as many as 13,000 Jews.
—a Nazi collaborator who engineered the arrest and execution of thousands of Jews in Poland.
—a German rocket scientist accused of using slave labor to build the V-2 rocket that pummeled London. He later won NASA’s highest honor for helping to put a man on the moon.
The AP’s findings are the result of more than two years of interviews, research and analysis of records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and other sources.
The Justice Department denied using Social Security payments as a tool for removing Nazi suspects. But records show the U.S. State Department and the Social Security Administration voiced grave concerns over the methods used by the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting unit, the Office of Special Investigations.
State officials derogatorily called the practice “Nazi dumping” and claimed the OSI was bargaining with suspects so they would leave voluntarily.
Since 1979, the AP analysis found, at least 38 of 66 suspects removed from the United States kept their Social Security benefits.
Legislation that would have closed the Social Security loophole failed 15 years ago, partly due to opposition from the OSI. Since then, according to the AP’s analysis, at least 10 Nazi suspects kept their benefits after leaving. The Social Security Administration confirmed payments to seven who are deceased. One living suspect was confirmed through an AP interview. Two others met the conditions to keep their benefits.
Of the 66 suspects, at least four are alive, living in Europe on U.S. Social Security.
In uncovered Social Security Administration records, the AP found that by March 1999, 28 suspected Nazi criminals had collected $1.5 million in Social Security payments after their removal from the United States.
A single male who earned an average wage of $44,800 a year and turned 65 in 1990, the year after Denzinger did, would receive nearly $15,000 annually in Social Security benefits, according to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit public policy group in Washington. That’s $375,000 over 25 years.
“The matter of Social Security benefits eligibility was raised by defense counsel, not by the department, and the department neither used retirement benefits as an inducement to leave the country and renounce citizenship nor threatened that failure to depart and renounce would jeopardize continued receipt of benefits,” Carr said.
The department opposed the legislation in 1999, Carr acknowledged, because it would have undermined the OSI’s mandate to remove Nazi criminals as expeditiously as possible to countries that would prosecute them.
Speed was a key factor.
Survivors of the Holocaust who made the United States their home after the war had been forced to share it with their former Nazi tormenters. That had to change, and fast, the OSI’s proponents said. If suspects were to stand trial, they needed to be found and ousted while they were alive. The OSI and its backers didn’t want death to cheat justice.
Yet only 10 suspects were ever prosecuted after being expelled, according to the department’s own figures.
Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, said while he could understand having to make the tough choice “between no justice and a measure of justice” by allowing suspects to retain their benefits to get them out of the country, the OSI should have well known there was no political will to prosecute them after their removal.
“If these arrangements were made based on the supposition that these people would ultimately be prosecuted on criminal charges in their countries of origin, that was purely wishful thinking,” Zuroff said. “Ultimately the numbers prove very clearly that almost none of these people were ever charged, let alone punished.”
A bill that would block suspected Nazi war criminals from receiving Social Security benefits is heading to President Barack Obama for his signature.
By voice vote, the Senate gave final congressional approval to a measure in December that would shut a loophole that allowed suspected Nazis to be paid millions of dollars in benefits, clearing it for the White House. Under the No Social Security for Nazis Act, benefits would be terminated for Nazi suspects who have lost their U.S. citizenship, a step called denaturalization.
U.S. law currently requires a higher threshold — a final order of deportation — before Social Security benefits can be stopped.
The legislation was introduced after an Associated Press investigation published in October revealed that Social Security benefits have been paid to dozens of former Nazis after they were forced out of the United States.
The House unanimously approved the bill on a 420-0 vote.
The legislation united Republicans and Democrats, who expressed outrage that U.S. taxpayers were unwittingly financing the retirement of individuals who participated in the Third Reich’s atrocities during World War II.
“Coming ahead of the 70th anniversaries of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, the adoption of this bill by Congress sends an important signal: Nazi criminals who illegally obtained U.S. citizenship after World War II by lying about their past and who escaped prosecution should not benefit from American taxpayers’ support,” said Robert Singer, chief executive officer of the World Jewish Congress.
The White House said that it agreed with the thrust of the legislation and is currently reviewing the bill.
A Justice Department spokesman, Peter Carr, said the department supports the goal of terminating federal public benefits for individuals found to have participated in the Nazi persecution during World War II.
The Social Security Administration said it supports the bill. Spokesman William “B.J.” Jarrett said the agency “doesn’t believe these individuals should be getting Social Security benefits.”
AP’s investigation found that the Justice Department used a legal loophole to persuade Nazisuspects to leave the United States in exchange for Social Security benefits.
If they agreed to go voluntarily, or simply fled the country before being deported, they could keep their benefits.
The investigation revealed that the Social Security Administration and State Department voiced strong opposition over the methods used by the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting unit, the Office of Special Investigations.
“Once signed into law, this bill will enshrine what should have been the policy of the Justice Department in the first place,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Suspected Nazi war criminals should in no event be permitted to retain Social Security benefits. “
Grassley and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have demanded that the Obama administration provide Congress with records explaining how suspected Nazis received the payments and the role the Justice Department played in the program.
Grassley and Hatch cited the AP investigation in letters sent to Attorney General Eric Holder and Carolyn Colvin, the acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration.
In the new Congress that begins in January, Grassley will chair the Senate Judiciary Committee and Hatch will head the Senate Finance Committee.
The Social Security Administration refused the AP’s request that it provide the total number of Nazi suspects who received benefits and the dollar amounts.
The AP appealed the agency’s denial of the information through the Freedom of Information Act.
Grassley and Hatch are seeking broad categories of data — such as the total number of Naziswho received Social Security benefits and the dollar amount of those payments — and details about specific cases. For example, they want to know whether a former SS unit commander named Michael Karkoc, whom the AP located last year in Minnesota, would be able to retain his benefits even if removed to another country.
The U.S. public did not become fully aware until the mid-1970s that thousands of Nazi persecutors had immigrated to the U.S. after World War II, with estimates ranging as high as 10,000.
Paul Shapiro, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, said the revelation that many received Social Security benefits even after removal was revealing. “Even decades later as they were forced to leave the country they continued to apply that leverage at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer.”
Congressional pressure led to the creation of the OSI in 1979 and it had one purpose: track down and expel Nazis in the United States.