Following the end of WWII, many of the Holocaust’s perpetrators escaped justice by fleeing to South America, or even living under assumed identities in the United States. Now, the U.S. Government believes that 92 year old Jakiw Palij, currently living in a second-story apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, may have been a concentration camp guard at the Trawniki concentration camp in Poland. Palij is currently the last active case being pursued by the Justice Department’s Office of Human Rights and Special Prosecutions.
Repeated attempts to deport Palij – including a federal order in 2004 – have failed, due to the fact that no European countries were willing to accept him. Palij has steadfastly maintained his innocence, claiming that he was forced to work for the Nazis during their occupation of Poland. Eli Rosenbaum, the Director of Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy, has dedicated his career to hunting down Palij and other Nazis. Beginning as an intern with the then-Office of Special Investigations in 1979, Rosenbaum has since helped the Justice Department pursue 137 Nazi fugitive cases, 107 of which succeeded in having the suspects stripped of their citizenship or deported.
One of the deportees was John Demnjanjuk. Known by concentration camp prisoners as “Ivan the Terrible” for his brutality, the Ukrainian Demjanjuk was believed by German authorities to have been an accessory to the murder of 29,000 civilians at Sobibor death camp in 1943.
One suspected Nazi, former Buchenwald guard Michael Kolhnhofer, was so infuriated by the Justice Department’s deportation initiative that he began firing out his front door when reporters arrived at his Kansas City home in 1996. Kohlnhofer was eventually killed in a shootout with police.
“Our World War II cases are the ultimate cold cases,” Rosenbaum says. “All of the crimes took place many decades ago on the other side of a vast ocean. It’s very much a search for the proverbial needle in a haystack.”
Although most Nazis are dying off, Rosenbaum is determined to bring those who remain to justice.
“What Mr. Palij did prevented other people from reaching old age,” Rosenbaum states. “He served at the Trawniki SS training and base camp — really a school for mass murder — and he trained on live Jews at the adjacent Trawniki Jewish Labor Camp. And, in the end, everyone who was held there was massacred.”
According to Peter Black, a senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who worked with Rosenbaum at the Justice Department,
“You can’t just decide that because someone gets away with [atrocities] for 40 years, that they are innocent,” Black says. “You have to do what you can to achieve justice for the victims, as a statement about our response to these crimes.”
Black adds that “For Eli [Rosenbaum], [hunting down Nazis] became a mission.”
Rosenbaum recalls how emotional his father, a veteran of WWII, became when he recalled arriving at the Dachau concentration camp the day after it was liberated.
“That was a time when you just didn’t see your dad cry,” Rosenbaum says, according to CNN.com
According to historians, the murders at the Trawniki are less well known due to their thoroughness. A document uncovered by researches reports that when a Trawniki guard’s rifle broke, he was required to file a report so that the S.S. could issue a replacement. The report also recorded that at least 4,000 people were murdered at Trawniki, most of them Jews. Unfortunately, even with solid evidence, most Nazi war criminals can no longer be tried for crimes against humanity under U.S. law, as that was relegated to the authorities in other countries. The most severe penalty now is deportation.