Author interview'It was incomprehensible that Nazis could live on US soil'

How historians led a campaign to hunt down, deport Nazi killers living in the US

‘Citizen 865’ details the capture of Trawniki Men — Soviet POWs and Ukrainian civilians trained by the SS who helped murder 1.7 million Jews, and some of whom then came to America

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Askari or Trawniki guards peer into a doorway past the bodies of Jews killed during the suppression of the Warsaw   ghetto uprising. (Courtesy of US Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Askari or Trawniki guards peer into a doorway past the bodies of Jews killed during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. (Courtesy of US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Jack (Jakob) Reimer was a retired potato chip salesman and restaurant manager living in New York. He was also a war criminal who had been trained by the SS at the Trawniki camp near Lublin, Poland, to help the Nazis eradicate the Jews of Europe.

The United States Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI) worked for decades to prosecute Reimer and revoke his naturalized US citizenship, only to see him die on American soil in 2005 before he could be deported to Germany.

Reimer’s case was not atypical. Although the government was successful in many of its efforts to denaturalize these Nazi perpetrators, it faced a multitude of obstacles in actually removing  them from the US. There was pushback from political pundits and immigration groups, and most critically, a lack of cooperation from Germany, Austria and other countries, who refused to accept these men back within their borders. In fact, the operation to deport the last known living Trawniki guard, Jakiw Palij, in 2018, was a rare success. 

‘Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America’ by Debbie Cenziper (Hachette Books)

The OSI’s efforts to identify, prosecute and deport Reimer and other Nazi guards trained at Trawniki (including the infamous John Demjanjuk) are chronicled in investigative journalist Debbie Cenziper‘s excellent new book, “Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America.”

Reimer is the eponymous Citizen 865, with the number referring to his identification code on Nazi rosters from Trawniki.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Cenziper’s well researched work of historical non-fiction reads like a fast-paced fictional thriller. The book provides a comprehensive and insightful presentation, not only of the painstaking work of the OSI, but also the personal lives and motivations of the attorneys and historians who staffed it.

The Office of Special Investigations was established in 1979 and in 2010 was merged with the DOJ’s Domestic Security Section to create a new unit of the Criminal Division called the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section.

Today Cenziper is director of the investigative journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a contributing reporter to The Washington Post.  She recently spoke with The Times of Israel about her motivation to begin work on such a challenging subject.

“The idea that these Nazi perpetrators could be living on US soil in peace raising families, collecting pensions and social security, and easing into quiet retirements after everything I knew about the war — what American soldiers sacrificed, and what happened to Jews — was incomprehensible. I had a hard time believing that this had been the case and I wanted to know more about it,” said Cenziper.  

Debbie Cenziper (Erica Land)

Cenziper, 49, had never heard of Trawniki, despite having attended a Conservative synagogue growing up in Philadelphia and taking a Holocaust course in college. It was only thanks to a chance conversation with a DOJ attorney at a New Year’s Eve party in 2016 that Cenziper learned of the camp where the SS trained over 5,000 Soviet POWs and Ukrainian civilians (some of ethnic German heritage) between 1941 and 1944.

These “Trawniki Men” (or Wachmänner) helped the Nazis murder 1.7 million Polish Jews by serving as guards at Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz concentration and killing camps, and participating in operations to liquidate many ghettos, including those in Warsaw, Krakow, and Lublin.

After the interesting, if rather grim New Year’s party conversation, Cenziper set up a meeting with US Holocaust Memorial Museum historian Dr. Elizabeth (Barry) White, who had for many years worked as a historian at OSI. White recounted to Cenziper the events of a pivotal trip she had taken with her OSI colleague, founding OSI historian Dr. Peter Black, to Prague in 1990. The Iron Curtain had just fallen, and Western scholars were finally able to access wartime records  housed in Eastern European archives.

“She told me how they were sitting in this dusty basement archives and that they found quite unexpectedly a roster from 1945 that revealed the names of 700 Trawniki Men. Listening to Barry recount how she and Peter recognized some of the names because they were men they knew had been living in the US for years just gave me chills,” Cenziper said.

View of the Trawniki training camp showing two barracks and a watch tower. The SS Training Camp Trawniki was both the name of the unit and the facility where its members were trained. The camp was located near the village of Trawniki, 18 miles from Lublin. (Courtesy of US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

“After that conversation with Barry I was all in,” Cenziper said about committing to researching and writing her book. Other books had been written about Nazi hunters, and about the OSI in particular, but this would be the first book for mainstream audiences specifically about OSI’s efforts to bring the Trawniki Men to justice — or as close to it as they could get.

Because the US does not have jurisdiction to launch criminal prosecutions against these men, the OSI instead sought to initiate civil action to strip them of their US citizenship based on fraudulent immigration visa applications.

Cenziper told The Times of Israel that she could not have written “Citizen 865” without the generosity of key figures from the OSI, such as Black, White, and former OSI director attorney Eli Rosenbaum.

Historian Peter Black (Courtesy of US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

“It was hours of interviews… Peter sat with me at least 15 times for at least three hours each session just to help me understand the history. You can look up the history and find a little bit here and there, but there is no single comprehensive written source on the history of Trawniki. It is not easy to research. A lot of the history is in Peter’s head because he pulled it together. And certainly the OSI part of it is in Peter and Barry’s heads. So I had to sit with them for hours and hours over the course of two-and-a-half years,” Cenziper said.

Cenziper gained access to declassified documents, and also visited key sites mentioned in the book, such as Warsaw, Lublin, and Trawniki to do on-site reporting. She retraced the OSI historians’ steps in Prague, where she, too, read the document that was so pivotal in the Trawniki investigation.

“I actually found the original list that they found. I put on the white gloves and held it,” Cenziper said.

To engage readers, Cenziper moves the narrative of “Citizen 865” back and forth through time, paralleling the life of Jakob Reimer with the lives of two Jewish teenagers from Lublin, Feliks Wojcik and Lucyna Stryjewska, who managed to survive the war despite having faced death numerous times. The couple, who married in the Warsaw Ghetto and were the only survivors of their families, immigrated to the US after the war to start anew.

Jakob Reimer’s Trawniki idenfification photo. (US Department of Justice)

The choice to structure the book this way occurred to Cenziper when she realized that Reimer seemed to always be one step behind Feliks and Lucyna.

“I came across the story of Felix and Lucyna… I never met them but I felt like I knew them, and their family was very supportive to me in telling me their story. I wanted to retrace their steps through occupied Poland, and as it turned out, Jakob Reimer essentially followed their path, so it helped me to merge those two stories together. They were from Lublin and he was in Lublin. They went to the Warsaw Ghetto and Reimer helped liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto. They came over to the US, and within a year Reimer followed,” Cenziper said.

“It was so outrageous that this Jewish couple had done so much to escape the Nazis only to find that they were living among some Nazi perpetrators here in the US. It just seemed like an obvious way to tell that part of the book,” she said. 

Driven by her curiosity as to how the OSI historians and lawyers could carry on with seemingly regular lives while immersing themselves day-in-day-out in the atrocities of the Holocaust, Cenziper also explores their personalities and backgrounds.

“I wanted readers to understand that the people who did this work had their own lives, struggles, and families, yet they were able to do this work fighting political opposition, dealing with pushback from Germany and other countries, racing against time, and trying to develop public support as they prosecuted older people. I wanted readers to understand the people behind the mission,” she said.

Group portrait of ethnic German guards at the Belzec concentration camp, one of whom plays a mandolin. These ethnic Germans served as officers in the Trawniki guard unit in the Belzec concentration camp. (Courtesy of US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Cenziper had expected to uncover an office of “crusaders,” especially the OSI members who were Jewish. However, the description did not fit those she got to know.

“Peter and the other historians wanted to see the record of history corrected, wherever that led… Peter believes, like historians do, that we can prevent horrible things from happening in the future if we understand the past… So they were not hell-bent on bringing these guys to justice at any cost — none of them were, at least the ones I met. They wanted to get the facts right, they wanted to understand the history, and to do this in a meticulous way. They weren’t running around saying, ‘Gotcha, gotcha, gotcha.’ It wasn’t that kind of an office,” she said. 

Cenziper was keen to shine a spotlight on the OSI historians and to highlight the close cooperation between them and the prosecutors. The lawyers tended to be the ones who were the face of these cases, and Cenziper wanted to show how the importance of the historian’s contributions.

SS-Gruppenführer Jürgen Stroop instructing Ukrainian auxiliary police (Trawniki Men), Warsaw, Poland. 1943. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

“You can’t prosecute men based on crimes that happened decades ago unless you understand the world in which those crimes took place. The historians provided context needed to understand the actions of these murderers. Some of the prosecutors, like Ned Stutman, took the historians everywhere. The historians could pick up on lies in confessions or in descriptions offered by these men, because they understood the history,” Cenziper said. 

Knowing that the people working at the OSI gave up much more lucrative careers to do this difficult work inspired Cenziper. 

One OSI member gave up far more than a better paying job. Prosecutor Michael Bernstein died on Pan Am flight 103, the flight downed in December 1988 by terrorists in what has come to be known as the Lockerbie Bombing. Bernstein, 36, was on his way back to Washington from a meeting at which the Austrian government finally signed a document agreeing to readmit Nazi war criminals.

The Austrians had previously scoffed at a deportation agreement, but by 1988 they were reconsidering. After negotiations in Washington initially failed to yield results, the Austrians insisted on another meeting in Vienna. Bernstein went and secured a vital win for the OSI, but he never came home in time for Hanukkah, as he had promised his children he would.

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