BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – U.S. officials announced the deportation Tuesday of a former Nazi labor camp guard who helped the regime carry out one of the largest single massacres of the Holocaust.
Jakiw Palij, 95, had been living in Queens, New York, after fraudulently obtaining U.S. citizenship in 1957.
When he immigrated to the United States in 1949, Palij told U.S. immigration officials that he had spent the war years working until 1944 on his father’s farm in his hometown — a part of Poland that is now present-day Ukraine —and then in a German factory.
But the Justice Department says Palij admitted in 2001 that he was trained at the SS Training Camp in Trawniki, in Nazi-occupied Poland, in the spring of 1943.
Later that year, on Nov. 3, 1943, Trawniki was the site of one of the largest single massacres of the Holocaust: some 6,000 incarcerated Jewish men, women and children were shot to death. In Poland, the the Third Reich’s plan to murder Jews was code-named “Operation Reinhard.”
Palij has reportedly admitted serving in Trawniki but denied any involvement in war crimes.
Federal prosecutors said nevertheless that Palij’s efforts to keep these prisoners from escaping “played an indispensable role in ensuring that they later met their tragic fate at the hands of the Nazis.” They have also said that Palij admitted to serving in the notorious SS Streibel Battalion, “a unit whose function was to round up and guard thousands of Polish civilian forced laborers.”
Palij suggested that his service was forced: “If you don’t show up, boom-boom,” he once told investigators. The United States first placed Palij in immigration removal proceedings in late 2003, but the deportation effort dragged on for another 15 years because Germany, Poland, Ukraine and other countries refused to take him.
During this lengthy period of limbo, Palij continued to live in a two-story, red brick home in Queens he shared with his wife, Maria, now 86.
For years this address has been the site of frequent protests by the Jewish community, featuring such chants as “your neighbor is a Nazi!”
The order to deport Palij came down in 2004 from U.S. Immigration Judge Robert Owen, shortly after a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York revoked Palij’s U.S. citizenship.
Owen said the Jews massacred at Trawniki “had spent at least half a year in camps guarded by Trawniki-trained men, including Jakiw Palij.” The Board of Immigration Appeals denied Palij’s appeal the following year.
Palij reportedly maintained friendships with other Nazi guards who like him came to the U.S. under similar false pretenses. It was one of his fellow guards from Trawniki who gave Palij up to Canadian authorities in 1989, leading to his first confrontation with investigators in 1993.
The Associated Press reported that Palij and his wife led a quiet life up until then, purchasing their home near LaGuardia Airport in 1966 from a Polish Jewish couple who had survived the Holocaust and were not aware of his past.
A statement from the Justice Department notes that it has won cases against 108 Nazi collaborators since the Criminal Division’s then-Office of Special Investigations began operations in 1979.
Palij is the 68th Nazi removed from the United States, and the government says its “Watch List” program has also prevented more than 180 individuals implicated in wartime Axis crimes from entering the country.
Last September all 29 members of New York’s congressional delegation signed a letter that urged the State Department to follow through on Palij’s deportation.
Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador who arrived in Germany earlier this year, credited the new German government, which took office in March, with bringing “new energy” to the matter. Grenell also said that Queens-born President Donald Trump told him to prioritize Palij’s removal.
Palij flew into Duesseldorf, Germany, on Tuesday, hours after ABC News video showed federal agents carrying the man out of his Queens apartment, wrapped in a sheet.
German prosecutors said previously that there does not appear to be enough evidence to charge Palij with wartime crimes. Palij will likely be kept in a care facility in the town of Ahlen.
Palij’s removal comes nearly a decade since Germany agreed in 2009 to take John Demjanjuk after the retired Ohio autoworker was convicted of being an accessory to more than 28,000 Nazi killings. Demjanjuk died 10 months later, at age 91, while his appeal was pending.
Some estimates say 10,000 former Nazis immigrated to the U.S. after the war. One Nazi suspect still believed to be living in Minneapolis is 99-year-old Michael Karkoc. Calling him an ex-commander in an SS-led Nazi unit that burned Polish villages and killed civilians during the war, Poland has been seeking the Ukraine-born Karkoc’s extradition for the last year.
“The United States will never be a safe haven for those who have participated in atrocities, war crimes, and human rights abuses,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.
Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also praised Palij’s removal. “The arrest and removal of Jakiw Palij to Germany is a testament to the dedication and commitment of the men and women of ICE, who faithfully enforce our immigration laws to protect the American people,” Nielsen said in a statement.