Almost a decade has passed since a suspected Nazi war criminal was granted the right to avoid deportation and remain in Northeast Philadelphia. It now appears that the 87-year-old man may still face a courtroom in Germany.
The German office that investigates Nazi war crimes has recommended prosecutors charge Johann Breyer with accessory to murder and that he be extradited to Germany to face trial for the killing of some 344,000 Jews at Auschwitz, the Associated Press reported this week.
Breyer, a retired toolmaker who still lives in Philadelphia, has admitted that he served as an SS guard at Auschwitz but said that he only did so out of fear and that he had made repeated requests for discharge. He said he never killed anyone as an armed guard and only had contact with Jewish prisoners when he went to the camp for a haircut.
A U.S. federal judge ruled in 2003 that Breyer could not be deported because, although he was born in Czechoslovakia, he was considered a U.S. citizen by virtue of his mother’s birth in Manayunk. And he did not give up that status when he joined the SS because he was under 18, the judge ruled.
It is unclear whether new evidence has emerged, but some observers say that German investigators could be renewing their efforts based on a precedent set in a case against John Demjanjuk, who was suspected of committing mass murder, and at one point was thought to be “Ivan the Terrible.”
There were no surviving witnesses who could place Demjanjuk at the death camp where he was thought to have killed Jews, but he was convicted on the basis of documentary evidence that showed he worked at the camp.
“I think that the Demjanjuk case set a precedent in German law that the presence in a camp was the bar that had to be proven,” said Mark Weitzman, director of government affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York. Breyer’s admission to having served at Auschwitz and his sufficient mental and physical health gave German investigators “a ready-made case to move on,” Weitzman said.
Marcia Sachs Littell, professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, said Nazi soldiers had a choice of where they served, meaning that Breyer did not have to serve at Auschwitz.
“I do know that some of the guards felt it was a way of receiving status in their lives and in their jobs,” Littell said.
She described Breyer’s claim not to have taken part in killings as likely being denial.
“My real feeling,” said Littell, “is that there is not a statute of limitations on murder.”