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August 22, 2018 by

Why Deporting an (Actual) Nazi Feels Hollow in the Age of Charlottesville

Under the heading of “better late than never!” the last known Nazi war criminal, the 95 year old Jakiw Palij, has been arrested at his Queens home by ICE and deported to Germany.  It’s justice done, yet in this summer of fear and anger, it feels hollow to focus on the past without looking at the present.

According to a press release from the State Department, Palij served as an armed guard at the Trawniki slave-labor camp for Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland during the second World War. He concealed his Nazi service when he immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1949. A federal court stripped Palij of his citizenship in 2003 and a U.S. immigration judge ordered him removed from the United States in 2004 based on his wartime activities and postwar immigration fraud. A careful reader will notice that that was 14 years ago. So, nu?

Well, it turns out no one wants to take in a documented Nazi. Germany, Poland, Ukraine and other countries refused to take him, so for the past 14 years, he continued living in limbo in Queens. Germany finally agreeing to take Palij was the product of intense negotiations, the White House statement said, because he had never been a German citizen. Germany’s Foreign Office said its decision to take Palij in showed the country was accepting its “moral responsibility.” 

Rabbi Joel H. Meyers, Chairman of the World Jewish Congress US, said in a statement, “Both Germany and the United States have taken a critical step toward allowing justice to be served. Jakiw Palij is a convicted criminal who stood guard as more than 6,000 Jews were brutally murdered…We thank the United States for urging  this deportation, and welcome Germany’s just decision to accept his extradition after so many years of inconclusiveness.”

But is Palij really “the last living Nazi,” as he’s been described by many news sources? Couldn’t one argue, maybe, that Charlottesville 2017, with its chants of “blood and soil,with synagogue attendees huddled in fear as white nationalists marched outside, seemed to indicate that a lot of modern-day would-be Nazis are alive and kicking?

This headline-grabbing case is an odd hybrid of new and old parameters of morality. Certainly, few of us would object to literal Nazis getting their just desserts—although some might view it cynically. (“Anyway good news, everyone, the scourge of Nazism has finally been defeated in America, thanks to the courageous effort by [checks notes] ICE to [checks again] arrest and deport a frail 95-year-old man,” David Klion tweeted about the arrest). 

It is strange and disorienting to live here in the upside down world where “truth isn’t truth,” as former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani said in an interview with Chuck Todd. Because a world in which we are so willing to make sure justice is served on a geriatric Nazi, but where our leaders call modern white supremacists “very fine people,” is confusing indeed. A world in which we profess to deplore the Nazism of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and yet support a “zero tolerance” policy toward immigration which deliberately and cruelly separates parents from children, seems odd. A world where the very detention and deportation authorities asking for pats on the back for arresting an aging Nazi in New York also arrested a loving immigrant father who was delivering pizza to the troops. a devoted mother of three small children in a pre-dawn raid, and detained an American citizen for years seems very odd indeed.

Yes, the Holocaust was a manifestation of pure evil on earth. But perhaps we need to look at ourselves in modern times a little harder, and take moral responsibility—without the benefit of hindsight.

Jordana Horn is a writer and contributing editor at Kveller.

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