Cit­i­zen 865 

  • Review
By – February 10, 2020

Deb­bie Cen­ziper is a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning jour­nal­ist and an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty and direc­tor of its pro­gram in inves­tiga­tive report­ing. Her book detail­ing the pros­e­cu­tion by the Unit­ed States Depart­ment of Jus­tice of sus­pect­ed World War II war crim­i­nals resid­ing in Amer­i­ca exhibits both the virtues and vices of jour­nal­ism when it invades the field of his­to­ry. It is exceed­ing­ly well-writ­ten, chock-full of col­or­ful char­ac­ters, and does not make any seri­ous demands on its read­ers. But the his­tor­i­cal research which went into it is rather skimpy, and its recount­ing of what indi­vid­u­als were sup­pos­ed­ly think­ing decades ago is high­ly spec­u­la­tive. Fur­ther­more, there is no obvi­ous con­nec­tion between its two major con­cerns: the work of the Jus­tice Depart­ment and the flight of a young Pol­ish Jew­ish cou­ple from the Nazis and their ulti­mate set­tle­ment in the Unit­ed States.

The task of fer­ret­ing out those sus­pect­ed of involve­ment in World War II atroc­i­ties was the respon­si­bil­i­ty of a group of lawyers and his­to­ri­ans who worked in the Office of Spe­cial Inves­ti­ga­tions (OSI). This office was the result of leg­is­la­tion pro­posed in the late 1970s by New York Con­gress­woman Eliz­a­beth Holtz­man, who rep­re­sent­ed a dis­trict with many Holo­caust sur­vivors. By 2010, how­ev­er, there were few, if any, of Hitler’s hid­den sol­diers” still alive in the U.S., and the OSI merged into the Jus­tice Department’s Domes­tic Secu­ri­ty Sec­tion, which was then renamed the Human Rights and Spe­cial Pros­e­cu­tions Sec­tion. This new agency was tasked with track­ing down war crim­i­nals from for­mer hotspots such as Bosnia, Rwan­da, and Dar­fur who had man­aged to sneak into the U.S.. These defen­dants, sim­i­lar to those who entered the U.S. after World War II, could not be pros­e­cut­ed for war crimes since they had occurred in anoth­er coun­try, but they could be deported.

Dur­ing its thir­ty years of exis­tence, the OSI inves­ti­gat­ed more than four­teen hun­dred sus­pect­ed Nazi col­lab­o­ra­tors and won dozens of depor­ta­tion cas­es. Cen­ziper focus­es on the case of Jakob Reimer, whose Nazi iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber was 865. He came from a Ger­man eth­nic area with­in the Sovi­et Union and was cap­tured by the Ger­mans after the inva­sion of Rus­sia in June 1941. He was then sent to the Trawni­ki camp near Lublin, Poland to be trained by the SS in the art of mass killing of Jews. Reimer was one of six thou­sand men who passed through Trawni­ki, but few, if any, served the SS longer. He was in a SS aux­il­iary unit for near­ly four years and became a sergeant, the high­est pos­si­ble rank he could have attained.

A judge ordered Reimer deport­ed after the OSI pre­sent­ed over­whelm­ing evi­dence that he had been involved in sev­er­al atroc­i­ties in east­ern Poland, con­trary to what he had stat­ed when he applied for entrance into the U.S.. He was nev­er extra­dit­ed, how­ev­er. Reimer died in Penn­syl­va­nia in August 2005, fif­teen months after the Sec­ond Cir­cuit Court of Appeals upheld the deci­sion to revoke his cit­i­zen­ship. He was one of eight defen­dants who died on Amer­i­can soil because no oth­er coun­try, includ­ing Ger­many and Poland, would accept them.

It is not unusu­al for a jour­nal­ist or his­to­ri­an to think of his or her top­ic of inves­ti­ga­tion to be of tran­scen­dent sig­nif­i­cance, and Cen­ziper is no excep­tion. She con­tin­u­al­ly empha­sizes the impor­tance of the OSI’s work and con­cludes her book by quot­ing Peter Black, an OSI his­to­ri­an and the volume’s lead­ing pro­tag­o­nist: If legal con­se­quences for mass mur­der and mass atroc­i­ty become habit­u­al to polit­i­cal and judi­cial behav­ior in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, per­haps we can pre­vent mass mur­der in the future.” Based on recent his­to­ry, there is lit­tle like­li­hood that this will occur.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions