Thursday, December 12, 2013
By DAVID RISING, MATT MOORE and RANDY HERSCHAFT The Associated Press
BERLIN - Germany has launched a war crimes investigation against an 87-year-old Philadelphia man it accuses of having served 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.
This January 1941 photo shows the approach to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Poland, with snow-covered railroad tracks leading to the camp. Germany has launched a war crimes investigation against an 87-year-old Philadelphia man it accuses of having served as an SS guard at the death camp, also known as Auschwitz II.
1941 File Photo/The Associated Press
This undated image obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request shows a U.S. Army intelligence card on Johann Breyer, indicating he served in Auschwitz as of Dec. 29, 1944 – four months after he said he deserted.
National Archives via The Associated Press
Johann "Hans" Breyer, a retired toolmaker, admits he was a guard at Auschwitz during World War II, but says 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.
The special German office that investigates Nazi war crimes has recommended that prosecutors charge him with accessory to murder and extradite him to Germany for trial on suspicion of involvement in the killing of at least 344,000 Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in occupied Poland. Documents also raise doubts about Breyer's testimony about the timing of his departure from Auschwitz.
The case is being pursued on the same legal theory used to prosecute late Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk, who died in March while appealing his conviction in Germany on charges he served as a guard at the notorious Sobibor death camp, also in occupied Poland.
The conviction was not considered legally binding because Demjanjuk died before his appeals were exhausted. But prosecutors maintain they can still use the same legal argument to pursue Breyer. Under that line of thinking, a person who served as a death camp guard can be charged with accessory to murder because the camp's sole function was to kill people.
Experts estimate that at least 80 former camp guards or others who would fall into the same category are likely still alive today, almost 70 years after the end of the war.
Breyer acknowledged in an interview in his Philadelphia home that he was in the Waffen SS at Auschwitz but that he never served at the part of the camp responsible for the extermination of Jews.
"I didn't kill anybody, I didn't rape anybody -- and I don't even have a traffic ticket here," he said. "I didn't do anything wrong."
He said he was aware of what was going on inside the death camp, but did not witness it himself. "We could only see the outside, the gates," he said.
Breyer said he had recently suffered three "mini-strokes." But he was cogent and clear as he talked about his past for more than an hour, sitting in his living room.
For more than a decade, the Justice Department waged court battles to try to have Breyer deported. They largely revolved around whether Breyer had lied about his Nazi past in applying for immigration or whether he could have citizenship through his American-born mother. That legal saga ended in 2003, with a ruling that allowed him to stay in the United States, mainly on the grounds that he had joined the SS as a minor and could therefore not be held legally responsible for participation in it.
Breyer testified in U.S. court that he served as a perimeter guard at Auschwitz I, which was largely for prisoners used as slave laborers, although it also had a makeshift gas chamber used early in the war; it was also the camp where SS doctor Josef Mengele carried out sadistic experiments on inmates.
But he denied ever serving in Auschwitz II, better known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp area where the bulk of the people were killed. He also said he deserted in August, 1944 and never returned to the camp, eventually rejoining his unit fighting outside Berlin in the final weeks of the war.
A U.S. Army intelligence file on Breyer calls that statement into question.
(Continued on page 2)