Aug. 21, 2018
‘This Man Deserves What He Gets’: In Queens, a Nazi’s Long Flight From Justice Ends
By Sarah Maslin Nir and Ali Winston

The 95-year-old man in the red brick house at 33-18 89th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, was known for keeping his yard spick-and-span, even tidying up rubbish on his neighbors’ stoops. Most days, he was quick with a smile and a “good morning,” in his thick Polish accent. He would sit on the steps behind his home during block parties, watching the festivities from his perch.

Neighbors at first had little inkling that Jakiw Palij was anything other than another immigrant living out his life in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world.

Except, every so often, someone would lob a brick through his window.

On Monday night, he was deported to Germany, the coda to a 14-year fight to remove Mr. Palij, a former volunteer Nazi guard who is believed to have presided over the death camp Trawniki. Over the years, Mr. Palij’s hidden past became an open secret in Jackson Heights. Residents had grown accustomed to regular protests by Jewish and other groups outside the two-story house, ever since investigators combing through Nazi records identified him in 1993.

In 2003, a federal judge stripped Mr. Palij of his American citizenship after finding he had lied on his naturalization forms by claiming he was laboring on his family’s farm in Poland and in a German factory during the war. He was ordered deported in 2004. But the United States could not find a country willing to take him. So Mr. Palij remained a New Yorker during an international game of keep-away between Poland, Ukraine and Germany. (He was born in a part of Poland that is now part of Ukraine.)

In Queens, Mr. Palij was a retired draftsman who had lived with his wife, who has since died. They had no children. To Maria Rososado, 70, who lived across the street, he was a pleasant part of the community, in spite of his past. “He was just an old man,” Ms. Rososado said. “He was not a bad person. He was a good neighbor.”

But some residents said his presence filled them with fear. “We are all different around here, different backgrounds, different colors,” said Cristian Pimentel, 45, a maintenance worker who lives a block away. “He was part of a group that was murdering people for being different. What makes me believe he wouldn’t do that again?”

Hours after his removal, several neighbors on the leafy street repeated a story Mr. Palij had told them — one he also shared with The New York Times in an interview in 2003. He had been forced to join the Nazis at age 18, he said, fearing for his family’s life. “I know what they say, but I was never a collaborator,” Mr. Palij said then.

In fact, he volunteered for service in the German Schutzstaffel, or SS, in 1943 while in his native village of Piadyki, in what is now Ukraine, according to court documents from the government’s case against him. In the Trawniki camp where he served, the SS gunned down approximately 6,000 Jews in a single day — Nov. 3, 1943 — making it “the single largest killing operation against Jews in the entire war,” according to Christopher Browning’s book “Ordinary Men.”

On Holocaust Remembrance Day for the past 15 years, more than 200 students and faculty members from the Rambam Mesivta high school in Lawrence, N.Y., have convened in protest outside of Mr. Palij’s house on 89th Street. “Many people in the neighborhood saw him as a nice old man. People said to us, ‘He’s 95-years-old,’” said Rabbi Zev Meir Friedman, the school’s dean.

“To us, he’s not 95-years-old,” he said. “He’s a 20-year-old murderer who got away with it for 75 years.”

Richard Grenell, the new United States ambassador in Berlin, pushed Germany to accept him.

“I made it a point to bring it up at every single meeting,” Mr. Grenell said on Tuesday. “No matter what the meeting was about, I brought this up at the end.”

In an interview with the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, explained the country’s about-face. “We accept the moral obligation of Germany, in whose name terrible injustice was committed under the Nazis,” Mr. Maas said.

That Mr. Palij remained in Jackson Heights for so long filled Ventura Luna, a chef at Que Rico Taco, just across the street from his home, with horror. He stood beside the griddle in the restaurant, visibly shaken as he recounted watching on Monday as agents took the man away.

“He looks like me, like you, like everybody, but inside his heart, he was sick,” Mr. Luna said, emotion misting his eyes. He shook his head in disbelief, adding, “Just across the street was a man who harmed innocents.”

As she hustled to work on Tuesday, Ana Ponce, whose house backs up to Mr. Palij’s, said on warm days she would frequently see him sitting on that small back staircase, silently crying.

“Maybe,” Ms. Ponce said, “he is remembering something he did.”