The death of Johann Breyer brought back unwelcome memories for a Northeast Philadelphia survivor who lived less than three miles from the former Nazi.
Clara Meles, a Holocaust survivor who was at Auschwitz, didn’t know that Johann Breyer, an admitted Nazi guard at the concentration camp, lived less than three miles away from her in the Northeast.
She found out when the local television news displayed Breyer’s address during a story about his June arrest on war crimes charges.
“When this Nazi news came out, it brought back memories about the Holocaust,” said Meles, a mother of five children. “I really didn’t live with it so much because I was so busy raising my family.”
Then last week, Meles learned that Breyer had died the same day the 89-year-old was to be extradited to Germany to stand trial for 158 counts of aiding and abetting in murder — one count for each trainload of Jews taken to be killed at Auschwitz during a six-month span when he was at the camp.
Breyer had admitted serving as a guard at the camp but said he had nothing to do with the 1.5 million Jews who were slaughtered there. His attorney said Breyer worked in the prison section of Auschwitz, not in the extermination area.
“He’s a liar because you cannot just be a guard and not be active and what I mean by active is, you hurt people, you kill people, you abuse people,” said Meles, whose parents and three of her four siblings were killed at Auschwitz.
Before learning of Breyer’s death, U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Rice issued a 31-page order for his extradition to Germany.
“Germany has established probable cause of Breyer’s complicity in the mass murders at Auschwitz,” Rice wrote. “As outlined by Germany, a death-camp guard such as Breyer could not have served at Auschwitz during the peak of the Nazi reign of terror in 1944 without knowing that hundreds of thousands of human beings were being brutally slaughtered in gas chambers and then burned on site.”
The news about Breyer came as Meles was still grieving for her husband, Julius, an Orthodox rabbi who led Young Israel of Oxford Circle for more than half a century. He died in November.
Julius Meles was born in Poland, but his family had managed to escape in 1938 before the start of the war. The couple met in New York after the war and then moved to Philadelphia.
Clara Meles said she was already having a hard time becoming a widow after more than 60 years of marriage when she heard the news about Breyer.
“Whenever something like this happens, it brings back memories for me, but it’s double because of my husband’s passing,” she said. “And now I have to deal with both.”