A former guard at a Nazi concentration camp was deported to Germany this week from Jackson Heights, Queens, where he had lived for decades.
Jakiw Palij, 95, served as a guard at the Trawniki concentration camp near Lublin, Poland, during World War II, and may face prosecution in Germany for his actions.
Students at Rambam Mesivta High School in Lawrence have been protesting in front of Palij’s Jackson Heights home for years.
“People will ask me, why not leave him alone? He was 20 years old when these crimes took place,” The Jewish Star last year quoted Rambam dean Rabbi Zev Meir Friedman. “I view him as a 20-year-old murderer that got away with crimes for 72 years, not a 92-year-old nice man.”
A statement released by the White House after Palij landed in Germany early Tuesday commended President Donald Trump and Immigration and Customs Enforcement for “removing this war criminal from United States soil.”
“Despite a court ordering his deportation in 2004, past administrations were unsuccessful in removing Palij,” the statement said. “To protect the promise of freedom for Holocaust survivors and their families, President Trump prioritized the removal of Palij.”
Members of New York’s congressional delegation last year urged the Trump administration to deport Palij, whose citizenship was revoked in 2003 based on his wartime activities, human rights abuses and immigration fraud. A federal court also ruled that he had assisted in the persecution of prisoners at the camp, though it stopped short of finding him responsible for deaths.
Palij was born on former Polish territory, an area now located in Ukraine. He immigrated to the United States in 1949 and became a citizen in 1957, but concealed his Nazi service saying that he spent World War II working in a factory on a farm.
Palij told Justice Department investigators who showed up at his door in 1993, “I would never have received my visa if I told the truth. Everyone lied.”
He later admitted to officials that he attended a Nazi SS training camp in Trawniki in German-occupied Poland and then served as an armed guard at its adjacent forced-labor camp.
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Trawniki camp was part of Operation Reinhard, the Nazi operation to murder the approximately 2 million Jews residing in German-occupied Poland.
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 wife Maria.
Germany’s Foreign Office said its decision to accept Palij showed the country was accepting its “moral responsibility.” And Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the German tabloid Bild that those who “committed the worst crimes on behalf of Germans” would be held accountable.
A reporter from ABC News who was present when Palij was removed by ICE on Monday morning described him as “looking frail with missing front teeth visible through his white beard. The only noise he made was a pained howl as agents hoisted him from his wheelchair onto the ambulance stretcher.”
Earlier this year, a group of more than 80 New York politicians, led by Boro Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind, petitioned the Trump administration regarding Palij.
“I never gave up on this issue because Palij’s presence here mocked the memory of the millions who perished,” Hikind said Tuesday. “There was no question of his guilt. It was imperative that someone responsible for Nazi atrocities be held accountable for his crimes.”
Palij seemed unimpressed by demonstrations outside of his house, telling the NY Post in 2013 that he was “starting to get used to it.”
“They told us we would be picking up mines. But that was a lie,” he told the paper. “In that camp they took us — 17-, 18-, 19-year-old boys. I am one of them. They did not give us Nazi uniforms. They gave us guard uniforms: pants, black; shirts, light brown; and hats with one button in the front. You could tell we were not Nazis. If you tried to run away, they take your family and shoot all of them.
“I am not SS. I have nothing to do with SS,” he added.
Edward Mosberg, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor from Poland and now a property developer from New Jersey, said that although the “decision comes late, it is a good and positive action and we are grateful to the United States for bringing this evil man to receive punishment for his crimes.”
Mosberg was quoted Tuesday during a tour of the Auschwitz memorial museum in Poland. He attended it with four Republican members of Congress as part of a delegation of the From the Depths, a Shoah commemoration group.
Efraim Zuroff, Eastern Europe director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that a “14-year long campaign has finally been crowned with success. Trawniki guards do not deserve the privilege of living in the United States and that was finally achieved last night.”
The Jewish Star contributed to this report.