President Donald Trump hailed his administration’s successful push to finally remove the United States’ last remaining suspected Nazi war criminal from the country’s shores. But as 95-year-old Jakiw Palij touched down in Germany on Tuesday, it appeared unlikely that he’ll face justice in his new home.
Palij – a former guard in a Nazi camp in occupied Poland – was removed from his Queens, New York, home in a wheelchair Monday, and arrived via military plane in Dusseldorf, Germany, about 20 hours later.
Despite a concerted diplomatic push by the Trump administration to deport Palij some 25 years after his past was exposed, he is unlikely to face trial, the prosecutor in charge of Germany's Nazi-hunting office told VICE News.
Jens Rommel, chief senior prosecutor at the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, said there were no pending charges against Palij in Germany, after prosecutors determined in 2016 that there was not enough evidence to indict him.
“There is no ongoing investigation or arrest warrant against him in Germany,” said Rommel. “The current situation has not changed as a result of the deportation.”
Palij, who was born in what was then Poland and is now Ukraine, admitted to U.S. officials in 2001 that he received training at the SS paramilitary camp in Trawniki in Nazi-occupied Poland and worked as a guard in the neighboring forced labor camp.
The U.S. government says Palij served at Trawniki in 1943, the same year 6,000 prisoners in the camp were massacred. The White House said Tuesday that “by serving as an armed guard at the Trawniki Labor Camp and preventing the escape of Jewish prisoners during his Nazi service, Palij played an indispensable role in ensuring that the Trawniki Jewish victims met their horrific fate.”
“It’s difficult to put him on a crime scene.”
But Rommel said that the evidence gathered on Palij so far was insufficient to indict him for murder or accessory to murder — the only charges that could be laid against World War II-era criminals, as other charges were subject to the statutory limitations.
He said that while Palij may have been deployed at the Trawniki labor camp in the spring of 1943, he was not aware of any evidence placing him at the camp in November that year, when the massacre occurred.
“It’s difficult to put him on a crime scene,” he said.
Palij has denied participating in the killings, and claimed he and other young men in his hometown were coerced into working for the Nazis.
German prosecutors have faced criticism for their slow pace in bringing alleged Nazi criminals to justice, as time runs out to bring the elderly suspects — some now in their 90s — to trial. In September last year, Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said it was “appalling” that prosecutors had failed to bring formal charges against eight men identified as members of a Nazi death squad, three years after preliminary inquiries were launched.
Palij emigrated to the U.S. following the war in 1949, concealing his wartime record, and became a naturalized citizen in 1957. His fate has been the subject of fraught legal and diplomatic wrangling between the U.S. and Germany for decades, since U.S. Justice Department investigators showed up at his door in 1993.
In 2003, a U.S. judge stripped him of his citizenship for “participation in acts against Jewish civilians” while he was an armed guard at Trawniki. A federal judge ordered his deportation a year later, but Germany, Poland, and Ukraine refused to accept him, leaving his case in limbo, while protesters and lawmakers regularly pushed for his deportation to prevent the former Nazi guard living out his twilight years in freedom in the country of his choice.
According to Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, the German government finally agreed to accept Palij by granting a special dispensation under its residency laws that offers entry to foreign nationals “to preserve the political interests” of Germany or for “international legal reasons.”
The concession came after weeks of diplomatic negotiations on the issue, which President Donald Trump had made a priority, according to a White House statement.
"Through extensive negotiations, President Trump and his team secured Palij's deportation to Germany and advanced the United States' collaborative efforts with a key European ally," the statement said. The administration trumpeted the deportation as a victory for ICE, fulfilling a promise to protect Holocaust survivors and their families that previous administrations had failed to live up to.
Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, said during a briefing call Tuesday that Germany had eventually agreed to take the former camp guard, despite the fact he was not a German citizen, as an ethical, rather than legal, consideration. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas echoed the sentiment, describing the decision to accept Palij as a “moral obligation.”
Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, praised the move. “Trawniki guards do not deserve the privilege of living in the United States, and that was finally achieved last night,” he said in a statement.
Rommel said that while the case against Palij was not permanently closed, he believed that German prosecutors held the same evidence on his case as their American counterparts. “What you have to keep in mind is the standard for conviction to murder or accessory to murder is much higher than for revoking his citizenship,” he said.
Indications are that Palij is destined to join the ranks of former Nazi suspects who never live to see their day in court. Television news crews outside his Jackson Heights home Monday captured footage of a frail-looking man, missing his front teeth, who groaned in pain as he was hoisted on a stretcher into an ambulance. Upon arriving at Dusseldorf Airport Tuesday, he was reportedly met by ambulance staff and taken to a nursing home.
Cover image: This 1949 photo provided by the U.S. Department of Justice shows a U.S. visa photo of Jakiw Palij, a former Nazi concentration camp guard who has been living in the Queens borough of New York.(US Department of Justice via AP)