Influx of World War II refugees brought thousands of war criminals into U.S.

September 23, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

John Demjanjuk returned to the United States yesterday, turned loose by an Israeli judicial system unable to convict him of being the arch war criminal "Ivan the Terrible" at the Treblinka death camp but still certain he was a smaller cog in the immense engine of the Final Solution.

His case has bred fears in some quarters that the near eight-year imprisonment of Mr. Demjanjuk, the grueling 15-month courtroom struggle and its inconclusive outcome might hurt the effort to bring to justice remaining perpetrators of Holocaust crimes. The former Ohio auto worker, it seems, was suspected of having been a guard at various other Nazi camps, including the Sobibor camp in Poland, where 250,000 Jews were murdered.

And his return calls attention to a fact that not many Americans are comfortable or even aware, that the United States was the principal country of refuge for fleeing non-German war criminals, followed by Canada, Australia and Britain. Those individuals were classified as "ethnic" war criminals by the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center.

"The German nationals who fled hardly ever came to the United States," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center. "They were frightened to come here because we fought the war against them. They almost all went to South America."

But the Latvians came, the Lithuanians, Estonians, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians and Nazi collaborators from other lands once a part of the defunct Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, where John Demjanjuk was born 73 years ago.

"Most of these people never even had to change their names," Rabbi Hier said. "They simply took advantage of the atmosphere of the Cold War and declared they were being persecuted for being anti-Communists."

How many were there? Efraim Zuroff, coordinator of the Nazi War Crimes Center for the Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, estimated that more than 10,000 made it through the screening process set up by the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization. "My figure is probably low," Mr. Zuroff said.

"We have obtained new documents from eastern Europe," he NTC said. "The level of collaboration was very high. We always knew that. What we are learning today is more information on the identity of the individuals who collaborated."

Mr. Zuroff estimated that a third of those who settled in the United States are still alive. "Many of these people were very young during the war, and many of them were able to flee."

Among the bigger fish still at large, and possibly still in the United States, are Otto Von Dolschwing, an adviser to Adolf Eichmann, and Andrija Artukovic, the minister of interior in the Nazi puppet regime that ran Croatia during the war.

A retired investigator for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service named Anthony DeVito -- a kind of hero among Nazi hunters for his work in bringing about the 1973 deportation of the first Nazi war criminal from the United States, Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan -- also estimated that thousands of non-German war criminals had evaded INS screening after passage of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948.

This law permitted 400,000 war refugees from Europe to settle in the United States. Many of those, Mr. DeVito wrote in an article in The Sun in 1977, were eager helpers of the S.S. Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi killing platoons that followed German troops into the Soviet Union and organized the destruction of Jews, Gypsies and others not acceptable as citizens of the world the Nazis were trying to create.

Near the close of the war, these collaborators were driven before the counterattacking Russian armies into Germany. Most wound in displaced persons camps, and from there wangled their way into the United States or English-speaking countries.

During the war, records were lost or destroyed throughout Europe. Many people could not prove their identities. All the refugees had to do was to sign affidavits that they had never persecuted anyone on the basis of race, religion or national origin.

Then they were safe, the good and the bad, for during the Cold War it was the tacit policy of the U.S. government not to extradite suspected war criminals to any country under Soviet control, those places where most of the crimes of the "ethnic" criminals were committed.

Many of these people were assisted in getting visas by aid committees set up here -- people of the same ethnic background -- who lobbied their members of Congress on someone's behalf. Christopher Simpson, the author of a book on the "ethnic" war criminals titled "Blowback," said that many of those aid committees were led by people with links to many who collaborated with the Nazis during the war.

John Russell of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI) said 47 ethnic war criminals have been "denaturalized" for having been war criminals.

Now, the OSI is investigating "between 300 and 400 individuals" suspected of war crimes. "We've opened up 50 or so new cases since the Berlin Wall came down and the break out of the East Bloc countries," Mr. Russell said.

The outcome of the Demjanjuk case, Rabbi Hier said, "certainly can't have a good effect" on efforts to bring more "ethnic" Nazi war criminals to justice in the United States.

"It will throw a damper on the work, but it won't stop the work," he said. "We are going to be more vigorous because we recognize that time is now against us. It is slowly going to a biological solution, so we have to be vigorous on the remaining cases."

Mr. Zuroff also expects it to complicate future war crimes trials. "The fact the eyewitness testimony appeared to be questioned" in the Demjanjuk trial will make it more difficult to win convictions.

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