Alex Constantine - July 21, 2009
By ISABEL VINCENT and MELISSA KLEIN
Three-hundred Nazis are living in plain sight in the United States, according to the world's preeminent Nazi-hunting organization.
Although the case against John Demjanjuk, the former Ohio auto worker formally charged with war crimes in Germany last week, is being called the last great Nazi war-crimes trial, Efraim Zuroff told The Post there are hundreds more suspects to be brought to justice.
"We don't have much longer," said Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel. "We have to go after them or they will be too sick to bring to trial."
Many of the Nazis still here are elderly men who worked and raised families in the United States and whose neighbors were unaware of their past, including:
* Johann Leprich, a retired tool-and-die worker from Michigan, who was a "Death Head" guard at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, where inmates were used as slave laborers in a quarry and tortured and killed by gassing, hanging and electric shock.
* Mykola Wasylyk of upstate Ellenville, who ran a Catskills bungalow colony renting cabins to Jewish visitors. He served as a perimeter guard at the Trawniki labor camp in Poland. He proclaimed in a 2002 letter to the US attorney that he was forced into Nazi service and that he had been "an exemplary and law-abiding citizen" for the last 54 years.
* Jakiw Palij of Queens, who quietly tends his flower garden every morning outside his Jackson Heights home. He was a guard at Trawniki and found to have helped keep prisoners from escaping the camp where 6,000 people were shot to death in one of the largest single massacres of the Holocaust.
* Elfriede Rinkel, who lived such a seemingly ordinary life as a San Francisco furrier that her Jewish husband knew nothing about her past. Rinkel worked as a guard at the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for women in Germany, where guards were known for forcing malnourished inmates to march to slave-labor sites daily and then kept in check by attack dogs.
The number of Nazis who came to the United States after World War II has been estimated from a few hundred to several thousand. Hundreds of thousands of Nazis are thought to have survived the war, many of them staying in the countries where they committed their crimes.
Since 1979, 107 Nazis have been prosecuted in the United States and at least 60 have been deported. Eleven suspected Nazis are now being prosecuted, and another 30 are under investigation.
Such investigations can take years.
Demjanjuk was stripped of his US citizenship in 1981, when he was believed to be "Ivan the Terrible," a guard at Poland's Treblinka death camp. He was sentenced to death in Israel, but that country's Supreme Court threw out the case, saying he was the wrong man.
US prosecutors began a new case in 1999, accusing Demjanjuk of working as a guard at a different Polish camp. He was finally deported to Germany in May.
"These are the ultimate cold cases," said Eli Rosenbaum, the director of the US Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations, which hunts Nazis and other human-rights abusers.
Cooperating witnesses were either murdered by the Nazis or have since died, and most of the criminals were not known by name to their victims, Rosenbaum said.
"The Nazis destroyed much of the incriminating documentation in the closing months of the war when they realized that an Allied victory was imminent, [and] the bulk of the surviving documentation is scattered in archives in many countries and remains poorly indexed," he said.
The DOJ usually snares Nazis on immigration violations, contending they lied about their past when they entered the United States, and by proving their underlying criminal conduct during the war.
Five Nazis brought to justice and stripped of their US citizenship are stuck in a deportation limbo with no countries agreeing to take them.
Among them is Palij, 85, whose citizenship was revoked in 2003. Prosecutors found that he lied when immigrating to the United States in 1949.
Germany, Poland and Ukraine have all refused to accept him.
Wasylyk is also awaiting deportation after four countries refused to take him.
Many of the Nazis have been found by governmental officials poring over immigration documents and comparing them with a list of 70,000 war criminals culled from countries around the world. The collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989 brought more information to light.
In Israel, Zuroff spends much of his time persuading countries in Europe, the former Soviet Union and Australia to prosecute Nazis.
While Israel was the site of probably the most important Nazi war-crime trial, that of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, the country has recently shied away from accepting other Nazis prosecuted on immigration issues in the United States.
Zuroff said in order to try these Nazis in Israel, a case would have to be brought on criminal charges, which would be difficult to prove since so much time has elapsed.