WASHINGTON — A former Nazi death camp guard, said to be the last known living Nazi war criminal facing deportation from the United States, was arrested at his Queens home on Monday and deported to Germany.
The White House announced the removal of 95-year-old Jakiw Palij in a statement issued early Tuesday that said “removing this war criminal from United States soil” was a priority for President Donald Trump.
Palij’s deportation from his Jackson Heights home concludes a decades-old effort to remove the former concentration camp guard, who previously admitted lying about his Nazi ties to immigration officials in order to gain entry into United States following World War II.
Palij, who was born in a region of Poland that is now Ukraine, was allowed entry into the United States in 1949 and eventually granted U.S. citizenship in 1957. He lived undetected in Queens and worked as a draftsman before his name was discovered on an old Nazi roster in the 1990s. Justice Department officials said Palij worked at an extermination camp in German-occupied Poland. Authorities say the former armed guard worked at the death camp in November 1943 when more than 6,000 Jews were systematically killed and buried.
“By serving as an armed guard at the Trawniki Labor Camp and preventing the escape of Jewish prisoners during his Nazi service, Palij played an indispensable role in ensuring that the Trawniki Jewish victims met their horrific fate at the hands of the Nazis,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
Palij, in a 2003 interview with The New York Times, denied being a Nazi collaborator, saying he was forced to join the Nazi ranks at the age of 18.
''We knew they would kill me and my family if I refused,” Palij said at the time. “I did it to save their lives, and I never even wore a Nazi uniform.''
Despite being stripped of his U.S. citizenship and ordered deported in 2004 by a New York immigration judge, Palij remained living among his Jackson Heights neighbors for more than 13 years as the United States negotiated with reluctant German officials to take him in. Ukraine and Poland also turned down similar requests.
Last October, New York’s entire 29-member congressional delegation issued a bipartisan letter urging then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to expedite Palij’s removal.
"It has been 13 years since Mr. Palij lost his right to remain here, and it has taken far too long for these court orders to be carried out," the letter stated.
White House officials said Trump pressed U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell to “prioritize” Palij’s return to Germany, which previously rejected such requests, arguing that he was not a German citizen.
Grenell, speaking to reporters in a conference call Tuesday, credited “new energy” among newly installed German government officials for the change in position. The ambassador said he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo often brought up Palij’s case, and German officials ultimately accepted “the moral obligation” of taking back “someone who served in the name of the German government.”
Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations, speaking to reporters, gave kudos to Long Island Rabbi Zev Meir Friedman and students at the Rambam Mesivta Jewish High School in Lawrence for staging numerous protests outside Palij’s two-story brick home and the German Consulate in Manhattan calling for his deportation.
“Those activities helped to ensure that the public never forgot this case,” Rosenbaum said.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress, also applauded Palij's removal, saying in a statement “Mr. Palij has been allowed to cower in his Queens home for far too long.”
In video footage obtained by ABC News on Monday, Palij was seen being carried out of his Jackson Heights home on a stretcher.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Palij, whose 86-year-old wife, Maria, recently died, landed in the western German city of Düsseldorf on Tuesday. Palij was slated to be taken to a long-term care facility in the town of Ahlen, according to The Associated Press.
It remains unclear if Palij will face any charges for his Holocaust involvement. German prosecutors have previously said there does not appear to be enough evidence to charge Palij with wartime crimes, according to the AP.
Outside of Palij's Jackson Heights home, neighbors recalled the Nazi in their midst as a cordial senior who mainly kept to himself.
Myriam Carrol, who lives about a block away from Palij, expressed shock he was only being deported now, when protesters had been making noise outside his home over a decade ago.
Carrol said she did not know Palij but was aware of his past and called it “horrible,” marveling that he was living on the quiet, tree-lined street “peacefully and happy.”
“They have to pay, you know, somehow, those who commit horrendous crimes,” she said.
With Allegra Hobbs