PITTSBURGH (AP) — As US authorities continue a long legal battle to deport a former Nazi concentration camp guard, it’s not clear what will happen if they prevail.
Anton Geiser, now 88, has been living in a small western Pennsylvania town for more than 50 years. He didn’t even tell his family about his Nazi service until 2004, when the Justice Department began legal proceedings.
Geiser’s lawyer will be appealing a deportation order next week, before the Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls Church, Virginia.
“We hope that he is deported,” said Joy Braunstein, director of the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
But Kurt Schrimm, the head of the special prosecutors’ office in Germany that investigates Nazi war crimes, said the office isn’t currently investigating Geiser’s case, and the Austrian Justice Ministry said it hasn’t corresponded with American authorities.
Geiser says he was forced to join the SS at the age of 17, in 1942, and that he never killed anyone. And while he served as a guard at the Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald concentration camps, he didn’t serve at death camps, such as Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau, which existed only to exterminate people.
Geiser says he was forced to join the SS at 17, and that he never killed anyone
The details may be irrelevant to most people, but in past cases, prosecutors mentioned death-camp service, noting the prisoners there had no option other than death. In the case of Johann Breyer of Philadelphia, another accused former Nazi guard, a judge allowed him to stay in the US, reasoning in part that because Breyer had joined the SS at age 17, he couldn’t be held responsible for what he did as a minor.
Federal prosecutors, however, say that even if Anton Geiser didn’t kill anyone, his work as a concentration camp guard makes him a party to the persecution of countless men, women and children, no matter how long ago it happened.
Geiser escorted prisoners to slave labor sites and was under orders to shoot any prisoners who attempted to escape. Both sides agree that Geiser guarded only the perimeter of the camps, but previous court rulings have found that doing so is enough to make someone ineligible for US citizenship.
Geiser told prosecutors he was ashamed of his work as a camp guard. “I was not proud where I served, and I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it now.”
Adrian Roe, Geiser’s lawyer, said his client was recently hospitalized and doesn’t want to talk about the case, but added that neither he nor his client dispute that the Nazi camps were horrific and “outrageous” chapters of history.
The Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald camps held some political and military prisoners, but tens of thousands of people also died there under horrific conditions, such as starvation, slave labor, medical experiments and executions.
Peter Black, the senior historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that it’s “very difficult” to tell whether any particular individual actually volunteered for the SS, or was pressured to join.
But he said the guards were essential to the concentration camp system.
“Even if they don’t have any contact with a prisoner, by walking the perimeter as an armed guard, they are helping to keep the people inside that place where they are enduring persecution,” Black said, adding that SS guards were paid and got leave time and health benefits for their service.
The Austrian Embassy did not immediately comment on whether the country would accept Geiser
A federal judge in Pittsburgh revoked Geiser’s citizenship in 2006, and another judge ordered him deported in 2010. Geiser is fighting that order. He lost a circuit court appeal in 2008, and the US Supreme Court refused to hear his case in 2009. In 2010, an immigration judge ordered him deported to Austria, or any other country that will take him.
Geiser, who was born in what is now part of Croatia, came to the US in 1956 and settled in the small town of Sharon, which is about 75 miles north of Pittsburgh. He became a citizen in 1962, worked in a steel mill for decades and raised five children.
The Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC, did not immediately respond to a question about whether the country would accept Geiser.
Roe said the Board of Immigration Appeals should consider a different 2009 Supreme Court ruling when it hears Geiser’s case on Dec. 6.
The legal question is “about when people are dragged into assisting the persecutions involuntarily,” Roe said, referring to an asylum case involving an Eritrean man who said he was forced to guard prisoners in Ethiopia. In that case, the Supreme Court ordered immigration authorities to consider whether people who were part of persecutions did so involuntarily.
Roe said that no matter how the Immigration Board rules, further appeals are possible.
The Justice Department didn’t respond to questions for comment on the Geiser case, which is part of its efforts to investigate former Nazis. Since the 1979 inception of the program, it has won more than 100 cases.