It is Poland, the winter of 1941-42. Some four dozen Jews from a labor camp are herded one day to an isolated ravine about 20 miles east-southeast of Lublin, where they are shot to death by SS guards stationed at a nearby training base. After the executions, a high-ranking guard appears at the mass grave. Walking on a wooden plank that spans the bulldozed gully, he notices one man 15 feet beneath him moving, still barely alive, point-ing to his head. The guard aims his rifle at the man and shoots. The man stops moving.
The United States says the guard who pulled the trigger was Jack Reimer, now retired from the food business and living in upstate New York, and wants to deport him.
A denaturalization trial that would remove his citizenship — the first step in the legal process to remove Reimer from the U.S. — is to begin next week in Manhattan. The proceedings before Judge Lawrence McKenna of the Southern District of New York Federal Court will be the first of its kind held there. Considering the advanced age of Holocaust-era survivors and their accused persecutors, it is likely to be among the last.
“The trial has symbolic significance,” says Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “There is overwhelming significance to the Jewish community and to all New Yorkers and to all Americans — that what happened 50 years ago is still relevant today.
“The fact that a government agency is tracking down, prosecuting, denaturalizing and deporting Nazi war criminals more than five decades after the end of the war is very significant,” he adds. “It is important that all Americans become exposed to the atrocities committed during World War II and to accountability to which those who committed those barbarous acts are being held.”
According to the Office of Special Investigations, the Justice Department’s 19-year-old Nazi-hunting unit, Reimer confessed his complicity to its interrogators 18 years ago. Reimer denies that now. In a legal brief, he claims he was “bullied, coerced, deliberately misled and deceived with questions with false assumptions” by OSI.
One fact is undisputed: Reimer, now 79, was a “Trawniki man,” a guard who served at the SS training base named for a nearby town. The most famous Trawniki “graduate” is Ivan Demjanjuk, the infamous Treblinka guard who settled in Cleveland after the war, was deported to Israel for war crimes, put on trial, convicted, and eventually freed in 1993 by the Israeli Supreme Court. The court expressed reasonable doubt that Demjanjuk’s identity had been established as “Ivan the Terrible.”
A complaint filed in 1992 by OSI and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District claims that Reimer trained new recruits at Trawniki, and took part in the evacuation and liquidation of the Nazi-established ghettos in Warsaw, Lublin and Czestochowa. Also that Reimer, during his audio-taped interrogation in 1992, “admitted” his role in the killing of unarmed Jewish prisoners at the ravine.
Reimer, in applying for admission to the U.S. in 1952 and denaturalization in 1959, “misrepresented his wartime activities and concealed his service” at Trawniki,” OSI alleges.
The agency is authorized to take action against individuals who “participated in the persecution of any person because of race, religion, national origin or political opinion” during the war and concealed those acts when applying for U.S. citizenship.
If the government wins its civil case, Reimer will face separate deportation proceedings by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. That would lead to deportation to a country of his choice that is willing to accept him. The appeals process in these cases can take as long as a decade.
‘School ForMass Murder’
Jack Reimer, like most Trawniki men, was a captured Soviet soldier. According to a Trawniki personnel sheet, he was 5-feet-10, with an oval face, black hair, gray eyes and a scar on his right thigh.
Born Jakob Reimer in Ukraine to an ethnic-German family, he moved to Russia as a child, was drafted by the Russian army in 1939, and was taken prisoner by the Germans near Minsk in 1941. As a German-speaking captor, he was offered a chance to serve as an interpreter — the manpower-short Germans needed people to implement “Operation Reinhard,” the Third Reich’s campaign to annihilate Polish Jewry.
Reimer was taken to Trawniki, an abandoned sugar factory surrounded by barbed wire, where he became a noncommissioned officer. About 4,000 men were trained there as guards or auxiliary police.
Trawniki was “a school for mass murder,” says former OSI director Neal Sher. “The Trawniki men rounded up and murdered Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Poland, participated in forcibly deporting Jews to annihilation and concentration camps, and took part in forcing Jews into the gas chambers at the Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec death camps.”
They were reorganized as the Streibel Battalion of the Waffen SS in 1944 and helped round up and guard Polish slave laborers in Poland from August 1944 to January 1945. They moved west in the spring of 1945, near the end of the war, keeping one step ahead of the advancing Russian troops.
Reimer, in court papers, says he spent some time in a displaced person’s camp after the war before immigrating to the U.S.Reimer first came to the attention of OSI in the late 1970s, as part of its investigation of Demjanjuk. Reimer’s name had turned up on a Trawniki roster. He was assured then, he asserts in court papers, that he was not suspected of any wartime crimes that would endanger his American citizenship.
“His picture had been sent everywhere … no witnesses against him were found … the matter was closed … he would not be called again and he could go,” a 1992 document filed by Reimer’s attorney, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, states.
The OSI investigation of Reimer had been “reopened at the end of 1989,” according to a Justice Department memorandum, after “seven pages of documentation and one cover page of material” about him was received from the Soviet Union, whose wartime files were being shared for the first time with the West.
The new documents detailed his assignments at Czestochowa and Warsaw.
“Any assurances given Reimer in February 1980” that the case against him was closed “were not based on this knowledge of Reimer’s specific assignments,” the memorandum states.
Reimer, an Evangelical Christian, described himself in an earlier interview as a church-going, Bible-reading man who prays daily for the Jewish people. There are no recent interviews.
Reimer has disappeared from his Putnam County home in Lake Carmel, 40 miles north of New York City. Repeated calls to Reimer — his phone number is still listed — went unanswered.
His bungalow — maroon, shuttered, overgrown with leaves from surrounding trees and bushes — appeared deserted one recent afternoon, with no visible police patrols outside. And Clark did not return several messages about his client left by The Jewish Week.
Reimer’s case has drawn little attention around Lake Carmel, a 1 1/2 mile long body of water ringed by bungalows. Even its small Jewish community, for whom the town is mostly a summertime residence, appears disinterested. No rallies, no sermons, no letters to the editor.
“During the year you are not aware of what’s going on” in Putnam County, said one Jewish resident, who asked not to be identified. “It was a non issue. It was not a matter of discussion.”
Apparently, no members of the Jewish community know Reimer or can remember meeting him.
“Nobody knows about him,” said Rabbi Solomon Acrish of Temple Beth Elohim in nearby Brewster. “As far as this community is concerned, he might as well be living in Los Angeles.”
Reimer, a onetime restaurant manager and snack distributor in Brooklyn, has lived here four decades in a modest bungalow facing the shore. His neighbors describe him as a quiet, white-haired man who tends his vegetable garden and takes walks with his wife around the lake. An ethnic German, he is a minority in the largely Italian and Irish community.
Reimer, as a captured soldier, was “among [the] most tragic victims” of the war, Clark stated in a legal motion. “Jack Reimer never assisted the Nazis in their persecution of any people. He never hurt anyone. He never willingly performed even the menial work the Nazis ordered. He was forced to do so.
“His deportation,” Clark wrote, “would cause him extreme prejudice and economic, social, family, physical and mental hardship and be a great injustice.”
“During my entire time at Trawniki,” Reimer said in a court declaration, “I considered myself a prisoner of war and I was treated like a prisoner with no rights who could be executed at will … I was never a part of the German army, the SS or German police. I was a captive who was forced to work at Trawniki.”
Reimer, in his OSI interview and in various court papers, offered several defenses of his actions from 1941 to 1945: He was unaware of Jewish ghettos or Nazi genocide; he was only an interpreter and clerk who supplied other guards food and liquor; he did not take part in any acts of persecution; he was a forced laborer under the Nazis; he considered the number of guards trained at Trawniki “too small to encompass annihilation of the Jews of Europe.”
What happened on the day of the Trawniki killings in the winter of 1941-42?
Reimer overslept, he says.
When another guard awakened him, he said in an interview, he came to the site where the Jews were already dead.
In excerpts from the OSI interview, included in the 1992 memorandum, he described what happened next:
Q. And they weren’t even finished when you got there, were they?
A. They were finished.
Q. Weren’t there some people who were still alive down there who had to be finished off?
A. There was one — I don’t know – was he half dead or whatever. He was pointing with a finger to his head … one of them already in the grave pointed the finger to his head, begged for mercy, so to speak.
Q. You finished him off.
A. I’m afraid so. I don’t know if I hit his head … I had to make one effort at least while the German was looking at me where I was.
Q. So you shot him?
A. I don’t know that.
Q. You tried?
A. I shot at that direction.
Q. It’s clear now you participated in this execution of Jews, correct, as you just described, correct?
A. It seems that way; that if I shot at that person that pointed at his head.
Q. You certainly shot into that pile of Jews, correct?
A. I shot the shot.
‘Courtroom Will Be Filled’
OSI director Eli Rosenbaum, among the agency’s personnel who originally interviewed Reimer, declined to comment on any specifics of the forthcoming trial — it is expected to last about two weeks — or any other pending case.
Prosecuting attorneys in the trial will be Edward Stutman, OSI senior trial attorney, and Steven Haber, assistant U.S. attorney.
For New York’s Jewish community, the trial will be a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience, says Michael Miller of JCRC. The umbrella organization of more than 60 local Jewish organizations will encourage its members to attend the denaturalization proceedings and sponsor educational programs on the subject.
“New York has the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel and is home to the greatest number of Jewish Holocaust survivors,” Miller said. “An opportunity now presents itself for members of our community to witness firsthand accounts of the Holocaust that for many has been limited to literature, films or lectures. “I’m optimistic that the courtroom will be filled on a daily basis,” he said. “The trial brings events of 50 years ago to life in our day.”