For the second time in a year, the United States is seeking to deport a New York City-area man whom it accuses of taking part in Nazi war crimes during World War II.
The case against Michael Gruber, 84, of New City in Rockland County, began last week in U.S. Immigration Court in Manhattan.
Gruber, a member of the Waffen SS from 1942 to 1944, “ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of persons because of race, religion, national origin or political opinion,” according to a notice filed by the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations and the New York District Office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
No specific charges were brought against Gruber, who served as a uniformed, armed guard.
The government document alleges that Gruber, an ethnic German native of Croatia who maintains Austrian citizenship, belonged to the SS Death’s Head Guard Battalion at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin.
“Segregation, debasement, physical mistreatment and extermination were practiced on a daily basis at Sachsenhausen,” OSI director Eli Rosenbaum said in a Justice Department press release.
Most of the 200,000 internees at Sachsenhausen from 1936 to 1944 had been killed or moved by the time the camp was liberated by the Russian army in April 1945.
Gruber claims through his attorney that he was in the SS, but worked as a sentry in the woods away from Sachsenhausen and did not find out about the site’s genocidal atrocities — an estimated 100,000 Jews and other prisoners were killed there — until he settled in Austria after the war.
“He says he was never in a concentration camp and that he never touched anybody,” said Stanley Teich, an immigration lawyer from New City.
Teich, hired just the previous week, said he was not prepared to answer the government’s charges in the hearing conducted by Judge Robert Weisel. A subsequent hearing was scheduled for Feb. 4.
Gruber, stocky and balding, did not speak during the hearing in lower Manhattan. On the advice of his attorney, he did not talk to the media. OSI attorneys also declined to answer questions about an active case.The case against Gruber comes a little over a year after a denaturalization hearing against Jack Reimer, an SS guard in Nazi-occupied Poland, was held in Manhattan Federal Court. Judge Lawrence McKenna is expected to issue a ruling soon in the first-such case held in New York City against an accused former Nazi.
Unlike Reimer, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, Gruber has lived in this country since 1956 with permanent resident status, which may be easier to legally remove than citizenship, Teich says.
According to the notice filed by OSI and INS, Gruber served in the SS, “an organization that, throughout its existence, acted under the direction of or in association with the Nazi government of Germany.”
The SS, which began as a private military force of the Nazi party, eventually took responsibility for mobile death squads that killed Jews throughout conquered countries and for guard units at concentration camps.
The government will allege, in legal documents to be filed later, that Gruber took part in acts of persecution, and that he served in Sachsenhausen, said a source familiar with OSI procedures.
Teich says his client, a retired Volkswagen auto body worker, “is not accused of doing anything [specific]. It’s a per se accusation,” Teich said, adding that “mere membership [in the SS] is not enough [to warrant deportation].”
“Some people in the SS are admissible” into the U.S. according to postwar regulations, “and some are not.”
Gruber admits being drafted into and serving in the SS as a private, Teich said. Gruber says he was stationed near a factory in the woods near Sachsenhausen — but could not see the camp — to prevent escapes into the woods.
While armed with a rifle, Gruber never killed anyone in the war, Teich says. “He says he never had anything to do with death camps.”
Gruber, a Catholic, is married with two children. Although he has hired an attorney for the early hearings, he has indicated he may leave the country willingly at a later point.
“He says ‘if they [the government] don’t want me here, why should I be here?’ ” Teich related.
Since OSI was established in 1979, it has stripped 63 Nazi persecutors of U.S. citizenship and “removed” 52 from this country. About 250 people are now under investigation.
“We are continuing to aggressively pursue these cases,” said Rosenbaum.