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July|August 2004
Crème de la Crème By Sasha Polakow-Suransky
Blitzkrieg By Margot Sanger-Katz

Blitzkrieg

The Department of Justice is still storming the country looking for geriatric ex-Nazis.

By Margot Sanger-Katz

ON A SUNNY APRIL SUNDAY, Andrew Kuras was outside his one-story brick house doing yardwork. Or rather, he was trying. The elderly man, burdened by a back injury, heart disease, vascular problems, and dementia, was leaning on his garden shovel, using it as a second cane as he walked slowly toward his toolshed.

Ten days earlier, on his 82nd birthday, Kuras had received news that he had lost his United States citizenship. A federal court in New Jersey found that Kuras had committed immigration fraud 53 years before, when he misrepresented his activities during World War II by failing to disclose that he had served in a German Schutzstaffel, or SS, guard unit. Though he can work in his garden for now, federal prosecutors almost always deport people in cases such as this.

The news of Kuras's newly revealed past spread quickly around his coastal New Jersey town of Mays Landing, about 20 miles from Atlantic City. The Press of Atlantic City interviewed Kuras, who spoke in confused, broken English. Local television stations descended on his family's New Jersey home. Newspaper headlines screamed, "Nazi!"

The case against Kuras was brought by the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, a division with a $5.5 million annual budget, a staff of 30, and one mission: bringing former Nazis to justice. Since its founding in 1979, the office has denaturalized or deported 94 people.

In 2002, historians in the office found Kuras's name on a list of men who trained for guard service at a camp called Trawniki, in occupied Poland, during the war. They then traced his identification number to guard service in three Jewish labor camps and his name to his immigration records. Having seemingly nailed down his nefarious past, they brought their case to a New Jersey federal court.

THERE ARE MORE FORMER NAZIS in the United States than you might expect. Immigration reforms passed in the aftermath of World War II were designed to permit the easy movement of refugees from Europe into the United States. But with the influx of refugees, many of their former oppressors also slipped in, despite legal barriers meant to prevent their entrance. In the confusion surrounding the dismantling of the postwar refugee camps, from which 400,000 people came to the United States, many simply lied about their wartime activities on their visa applications. Allan Ryan, the OSI's first director, estimated the number who succeeded to be 10,000.

Yet until the mid-1970s, the Nazis among us were not a high-priority concern of the U.S. government. The Immigration and Naturalization Service kept a list of suspected Nazi war criminals living in the country, but it made little effort to prosecute them or to seek their extradition to countries that might try them for their crimes. As the OSI later uncovered, many were occupying top positions as U.S. scientists or spies. One of the OSI's first cases was against Arthur Rudolf, the director of NASA's Saturn V rocket program.

A generation ago, Elizabeth Holtzman—a Brooklyn congresswoman and a Democrat on the immigrations subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee—learned of the list on a tip from an INS official. She was shocked. Holtzman, whose parents had emigrated from Russia before the war to escape persecution against Jews, began to press for the creation of an office to pursue Nazi war criminals and for a law to give those prosecutions teeth. The fledgling office joined the criminal division of the Justice Department in the Carter Administration.

The Holtzman Amendment, as the law has come to be known, removed any doubt about the lack of eligibility of former Nazis for U.S. citizenship. It states that any alien from a Nazi-occupied country, or that of a collaborator, who "ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person because of race, religion, national origin, or political opinion" is ineligible for a U.S. visa and eligible for deportation. That means Vichy collaborators, Hungarian Arrow Cross members, and Polish ghetto liquidators are all equally excludable. "They were knowing members of the Nazi regime whether they were card-carrying members or not," said Ryan.

The office views its targets as the most serious of criminals, but it lacks the jurisdiction to prosecute them in criminal court. Because Nazi war crimes occurred overseas and their victims were not U.S. citizens, the most the office can do is strip people of their ill-gotten citizenship.

In 1981, the Supreme Court established in Fedorenko v. United States the parameters of a successful OSI case. The OSI had brought evidence that Feodor Fedorenko had been an armed guard at the Treblinka concentration camp and had shot and whipped prisoners there. Fedorenko asserted that he had committed no acts of violence and had served involuntarily, as a prisoner of war. The court ruled that the evidence in a denaturalization case must be "clear, unequivocal, and convincing"—a higher standard than that of a typical civil case. But that evidence need not be of any specific individual wrongdoing. As long as Fedorenko served as an armed guard in the camp and lied about it on his visa application, the court determined, he could be denaturalized.

Kuras's lawyer, John Finnegan III, said, "The law is such that all they had to prove was that he served as a guard at the Trawniki prisoner camp and [that] they issued him a rifle."

INSIDE THE OFFICE OF SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS, which is nestled in a brick building nine blocks from the main office of the Justice Department, sits a wall of gray metal cabinets labeled "Trawniki." They contain hundreds of photocopied personnel files, rosters, orders, and miscellaneous detritus from the Nazi bureaucracy.

Files like these are smoking guns for the OSI. The file room, not the courtroom, is where the office's real work gets done. Most of the witnesses to Nazi atrocities are dead or too old to remember anything accurately. Rather than rely on individual accounts of events, the office employs 10 full-time historians, who pore through the reams of paper that document the movement of Nazi battalions and SS guard units. All of the office's historians speak fluent German, and many speak one, or even several, of the languages of Germany's collaborators as well: Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, Lithuanian, and French.

The Germans burned many of their own military records after the war, and the files of their collaborators remained in the possession of the former Soviet states and the one-time Eastern Bloc countries. But with the end of the Cold War, historians at the OSI gained access to troves of Soviet and Eastern European archives. As a result, most of the office's current prosecutions are not against Germans, but against Eastern European men who served in auxiliary forces.

The office's use of primary source documents may make it seem as though it will bring only airtight cases. But the OSI has made mistakes. In one of its early prosecutions, it identified an Ohio autoworker, John Demjanjuk, as the notorious "Ivan the Terrible" who operated the gas chambers of the Treblinka concentration camp. The government's case hinged on an identification card allegedly issued to guards at the camp, which an expert said looked authentic, though he admitted it was the only one of its kind he had ever seen.

Demjanjuk was denaturalized, extradited to Israel, convicted of war atrocities, and sentenced to death. After his family uncovered exculpatory records showing that another person, Ivan Marchenko, may have been the Treblinka butcher, the courts changed course. The Israeli Supreme Court overturned Demjanjuk's conviction and the Sixth Circuit scolded the OSI for "a reckless disregard for the truth." The OSI has since succeeded in denaturalizing Demjanjuk again, this time proving that he served at Trawniki.

To Demjanjuk's lawyer, John Broadley, there is a lesson to be learned from his case about the inequities between the OSI and its defendants. "Because of the very nature of what they're doing, the case is a trial by archive," he said. "[But] only one side is really able to mine the archives."

OFFICIALS IN THE OSI admit that they may have made an error in that case. But they have carried on with an unaltered sense of mission. To them, their work is part of a crucial battle to bring about world justice. "When we win," said Eli Rosenbaum, the office's current director, "it sends a very powerful message, we think, to would-be perpetrators of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity in the future, that if they dare act on their fantasies of mass murder and persecution, that there is a real chance that what remains of the civilized world will pursue them if necessary for as long as they live, even into old age."

Rosenbaum knows that this isn't a consistent policy across the U.S. government. Though the United States has remained committed to catching and deporting every last Nazi, neither the Justice Department nor the Department of Homeland Security routinely prosecutes modern war criminals living here. There would be plenty of opportunities. Amnesty International estimates that nearly 1,000 foreign torturers live in the United States. Many are much younger or were much more closely connected to an oppressive regime than the ex-Nazis whom the OSI pursues. Kelbessa Negewo, for example, earned U.S. citizenship after losing a lawsuit brought by a woman she allegedly tortured back in her home country of Ethiopia.

Asked about the apparent inconsistency between the country's relentless pursuit of Nazis and its seeming indifference to other war criminals, Ryan, the former OSI director, pointed to the number of Nazis who had come over after the war. "The Holocaust was unique in that when it was over and the war was over, we swung open our gates to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees to come here," he said. "When we finally looked up and looked around in the late '70s and early '80s, we saw that we had let in some of the debris along with those who we were trying to save. That has given the United States a special obligation to investigate and prosecute these people."

But this obligation has left the OSI in the position of going after the frail. Nearly 60 years after the end of the war, most of the cases the OSI is prosecuting are against people in their 80s and 90s, many in poor health. And as the OSI has discovered over the years, most have been good citizens living unobtrusive lives in the United States. Ryan had good reason to title his book on his Nazi-hunting days Quiet Neighbors: The people his office prosecuted were law-abiding, with steady jobs, families, and neighbors who regarded them highly. None was a neo-Nazi activist, troublemaker, or obvious anti-Semite.

Even Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Holocaust survivor who made international Nazi-hunting his life's work, has suggested that the time has come to abandon the task. Last year, he told an Austrian magazine that his work was done. "I have found the mass murderers I was looking for, and I have outlived all of them," he said. "If there's a few I didn't look for, they are now too old and fragile to stand trial."

KURAS FITS THE DESCRIPTION of the "quiet neighbor" in New Jersey. He has lived in the same brick house he built in Mays Landing a few years after his 1951 arrival to the United States, and he has worked on the same blueberry farm all these years. He raised three children there, and did not tell them about his service during the war until the OSI brought its case. It's not clear how deeply involved he was with Nazi atrocities. In a deposition, Kuras corroborated the government's allegations that he had served at Trawniki and other camps, but contended that he harmed no one and never became a Nazi. "He was just a 19-year-old kid trying to survive," said Finnegan, Kuras's lawyer. "He was just as much a prisoner as the people he was guarding."

Before the war, Kuras lived on a farm in the province of Galicia, a region in the Kingdom of Poland that became part of Ukraine at the end of World War II. Kuras's town was captured by the Soviets early in the war, but once the Germans moved east in 1941, Stalin retreated from Ukraine. Mass starvation in Ukraine ensued.

Both Kuras's father and the town's mayor encouraged the young man, who suffered from hernias, to respond to a newspaper advertisement for work in a German railroad guard company, reasoning that he would receive food and needed medical care. This meant he would be working for the Nazis.

Kuras's name and identification number are on a roster of Ukrainian enlistees who began training at the Trawniki camp on December 11, 1942, a roster found among the many Trawniki files gathered over the past two decades by the OSI. At the camp, he learned basic German commands, and was taught how to use a rifle and how to prevent prisoner escapes. Shortly afterwards, he was stationed at the adjacent Trawniki forced-labor camp and at guard posts at the nearby Poniatowa and Dorohucza camps.

Kuras says he neither hurt anyone nor shot his gun during his guard service at the camps. He even told prosecutors that he encouraged Jews at Trawniki to flee, and he claimed that he was on leave visiting his sick father when the Jews in the camps he guarded were killed in November 1943, a massacre the Germans called "Operation Harvest Festival."

Those claims are extremely hard to confirm or disprove. But that's not the OSI's job. It just had to prove that Kuras lied on his visa application, and he clearly did, omitting any mention of his Nazi service on the section of the form that asked what he was doing during the years of the war. He wrote that he had worked for a farmer in Poland whose name he had been given in a German refugee camp.

"I lied a little bit," he said.

Margot Sanger-Katz is an assistant editor at Legal Affairs.

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