Palij landed in the western German city of Duesseldorf on Tuesday. The local government in Warendorf county, near Muenster, indicated that Palij would be taken to a care facility in the town of Ahlen.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that “there is no line under historical responsibility,” adding in comment to German daily Bild that doing justice to the memory of Nazi atrocities “means standing by our moral obligation to the victims and the subsequent generations.”
German prosecutors have previously said it does not appear that there’s enough evidence to charge Palij with wartime crimes.
Now that he is in Germany, Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi-hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he hoped prosecutors would revisit the case.
“Trawniki was a camp where people were trained to round up and murder the Jews in Poland, so there’s certainly a basis for some sort of prosecution,” he said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem, adding that the U.S. Department of Justice “deserves a lot of credit” for sticking with the case.
“The efforts invested by the United States in getting Palij deported are really noteworthy and I’m very happy to see that they finally met with success.”
Palij’s deportation is the first for a Nazi war crimes suspect since Germany agreed in 2009 to take John Demjanjuk, a retired Ohio autoworker who was accused of serving as a Nazi guard. He was convicted in 2011 of being an accessory to more than 28,000 killings and died 10 months later, at age 91, with his appeal pending.
Palij, whose full name is pronounced Yah-keev PAH’-lee, entered the U.S. in 1949 under the Displaced Persons Act, a law meant to help refugees from post-war Europe.
He told immigration officials that he worked during the war in a woodshop and farm in Nazi-occupied Poland; at another farm in Germany; and finally in a German upholstery factory. Palij said he never served in the military.
In reality, officials say, he played an essential role in the Nazi program to exterminate Jews in German-occupied Poland, as an armed guard at Trawniki. According to a Justice Department complaint, Palij served in a unit that “committed atrocities against Polish civilians and others” and then in the notorious SS Streibel Battalion, “a unit whose function was to round up and guard thousands of Polish civilian forced laborers.”
After the war, Palij maintained friendships with other Nazi guards who the government says came to the U.S. under similar false pretenses. And in an interesting coincidence, Palij and his wife purchased their home near LaGuardia Airport in 1966 from a Polish Jewish couple who had survived the Holocaust and were not aware of his past.
The Justice Department’s special Nazi-hunting unit started piecing together Palij’s past after a fellow Trawniki guard identified him to Canadian authorities in 1989. Investigators asked Russia and other countries for records on Palij beginning in 1990 and first confronted him in 1993.
It wasn’t until after a second interview in 2001 that he signed a document acknowledging he had been a guard at Trawniki and a member of the Streibel Battalion. Palij suggested at one point during that interview that he was threatened with death if he refused to work as a guard, saying “if you don’t show up, boom-boom.”
Though the last Nazi suspect ordered deported, Palij is not the last in the U.S.
Since 2017, Poland has been seeking the extradition of Ukrainian-born Michael Karkoc, an ex-commander in an SS-led Nazi unit that burned Polish villages and killed civilians during the war. The 99-year-old who currently lives in Minneapolis was the subject of a series of 2013 reports by the AP that led Polish prosecutors to issue an arrest warrant for him.
In addition to Karkoc, there are almost certainly others in the U.S. who have either not yet been identified or investigated by authorities.
The American public did not become fully aware until the 1970s that thousands of Nazi persecutors had gone to the U.S. after World War II. Some estimates say 10,000 may have made the U.S. their home after the war.
Since then, the Justice Department has initiated legal proceedings against 137 suspected Nazis, with about half, 67, being removed by deportation, extradition or voluntary departure. Of the rest, 28 died while their cases were pending and 9 were ordered deported but died in the U.S. because no other country was willing to take them.