Johann Breyer and the sluggish pursuit of justice

     This undated file image shows the main gate of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz I in Poland, which was liberated by the Russians in January 1945. Writing over the gate reads: 'Arbeit macht frei' (Work Sets You Free). Germany has launched a war crimes investigation against an 87-year-old Philadelphia man it accuses of serving as an SS guard at the Auschwitz death camp, following years of failed U.S. Justice Department efforts to have the man stripped of his American citizenship and deported. Johann 'Hans' Breyer, a retired toolmaker, admits he was a guard at Auschwitz during World War II, but told the AP he was stationed outside the facility and had nothing to do with the wholesale slaughter of some 1.5 million Jews and others behind the gates. (AP Photo, file)

    This undated file image shows the main gate of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz I in Poland, which was liberated by the Russians in January 1945. Writing over the gate reads: 'Arbeit macht frei' (Work Sets You Free). Germany has launched a war crimes investigation against an 87-year-old Philadelphia man it accuses of serving as an SS guard at the Auschwitz death camp, following years of failed U.S. Justice Department efforts to have the man stripped of his American citizenship and deported. Johann 'Hans' Breyer, a retired toolmaker, admits he was a guard at Auschwitz during World War II, but told the AP he was stationed outside the facility and had nothing to do with the wholesale slaughter of some 1.5 million Jews and others behind the gates. (AP Photo, file)

    Kicking Nazis out of this country…now there’s a government program we can all get with.

    The federal Office of Special Investigations, an arm of the Justice Department, has sought to deport hundreds of war criminals since its creation in 1979, but, alas, the path to justice has been fraught with potholes. Sometimes it’s been tough to meet the legal standards for guilt. Sometimes the cases have been tainted by politics. Sometimes the defendants’ birth nations have refused to take them back. And sometimes the defendants simply die on us, before we can kick them out.

    Indeed, death saved one of those guys earlier this week. Darn it.

    Johann Breyer, age 89, engineered his great escape just hours before a U.S. magistrate decreed that Breyer didn’t deserve to live out his days in his brick townhouse in northeast Philadelphia. Germany had amassed evidence of Breyer’s wartime service as an SS guard at Auschwitz, where he was allegedly complicit in the murder of 216,000 Jews – and that was good enough for the judge, who ruled, “No statute of limitations offers a safe haven for murder.” The murder rap was deemed more important than the fact that kindly old Johann often fed treats to his Philly neighbor’s dog.

    Unfortunately, this case, 20 years in the making, came to an end when Breyer expired at Jefferson Hospital after a month’s incarceration. Par for the course, really. The OSI – working since 1979 under administrations of both parties (eureka, a mission with bipartisan support!) – has sought legal proceedings against roughly 140 accused Nazis, but has managed to expel only half of them. And because the mortality clock is ticking, the late Mr. Breyer might even prove to be the last accused Nazi on American soil.

    You might be wondering today why I’m straying so far from politics in order to hit this topic. The answer is, because I want to. Because I can. And because it can prompt us to ponder the imperatives of justice, and the role of morality in a civil society. And besides, there’s lots of politics.

    For decades – until Germany changed its tune – most European nations had no interest in pursuing justice. As former OSI chief Eli Rosenbaum said in a 2011 documentary, “Without any doubt, the greatest single frustration has been our inability, in quite a number of cases now, to carry out the deportation orders that we’ve won in federal courts…because governments of Europe refuse to take these people back.” The past was deemed to be dead, European prosecutors didn’t want to stoke old passions, and, politically, Europe didn’t want to be seen as the final refuge for Nazi exiles.

    So the OSI proceedings have typically dragged on for years, until the defendants get so old that people start to say, “Leave them alone, they’re old.” After Johann Breyer was hauled into court last month, he got support on social media because he was old. But Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff got it right not long ago when he told National Geographic, “Don’t look at these people and say they look frail and weak. Think of someone who at the height of his powers devoted his energies to murdering men, women, and children.”

    Breyer may have been an elderly “nice guy” (as a Philly neighbor described him). But the Germans said that he had voluntarily joined the notorious SS “Death’s Head” battalion at 17 – you joined the SS only after pledging fealty to its murderous anti-Semitism – and that even if he hadn’t personally killed people at Auschwitz, he was nonetheless complicit, a willing collaborator. Breyer denied that; in court last month, he insisted that, as an Auschwitz guard, he had no idea what was really going on. I’ve tried to type that last sentence with a straight face.

    The Germans and the OSI apparently had the guy nailed, thanks to new documents and Auschwitz camp rosters. At least there was no dispute about the credibility of the evidence – unlike years ago, when Cold War politics often impeded the quest for justice.

    I know that period well. In November 1986, I wrote a magazine story about Karl Linnas, a 67-year-old Long Island resident and accused Nazi executioner. The OSI said the evidence was overwhelming. The problem was, the Soviet Union wanted to take Linnas back and execute him – Linnas’ alleged crimes took place on Soviet soil – and we didn’t like the Soviets. The eyewitness and documentary evidence came from the Soviets, and we didn’t trust the Soviets. Linnas’ American defenders said that the Soviets had a vested political interest in smearing its emigrants as fascists.

    But the OSI vetted all the Linnas evidence and said it was solid. Allan Ryan, the OSI director, told me, “If he is guilty, and I do believe he is, then why should we give him a free ride in this country just because the Soviets have condemned him to death?” A few months later, Linnas was deported; in that sense, the OSI had done its job. But the epilogue was predictably murky. Linnas got sick and died in a Soviet hospital while trying to appeal his death sentence.

    So decide for yourself whether these cases are worth the protracted hassles – other aging Nazi abettors still live in America despite their deportation orders – but I’m going with Paul Shapiro, a top guy at Washington’s Holocaust Museum: “That they have been able to live out their lives enjoying the freedoms of this country, after depriving others of freedom and life itself, is an affront to the memory of those who perished.” Whatever it takes, and however long it takes, throw them out.

     

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

     

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