For most of the nearly six decades since the end of World War II, an SS training base 20 miles east-southeast of Lublin was, for the general public, a relatively minor footnote in the history of the Holocaust.
In recent years, however, Trawniki has assumed a higher profile.
Last week the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations asked a federal court in Brooklyn to revoke the citizenship of a 78-year-old Queens man whom it accuses of having participated "in acts of persecution against Jewish civilians" while serving at the SS Trawniki Training Camp during the war.
Jakiw Palij, according to the OSI complaint, "misrepresented his true wartime activities" when he applied for a U.S. immigration visa in 1949.
The case against Palij, of Jamaica Heights, represents the first-such OSI action in 13 years against an accused Nazi war criminal now living in New York City. But OSI has filed about 10 cases in the last few years against former Trawniki guards, the largest number from a single location in occupied Europe, said OSI director Eli Rosenbaum.
"That’s a result of the increased access to information behind the Iron Curtain," Rosenbaum said of once-secret files and wartime eyewitnesses who became available to investigators from the West a decade ago following the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Documents from Russia and Ukraine have proven especially useful in building cases against Nazis and Nazi accomplices, he said.
A denaturalization hearing to remove the citizenship of Jack Reimer, a retired food distributor living in upstate New York, was held four years ago in Manhattan Federal Court. Judge Lawrence McKenna has not yet issued a decision.
The Palij case is in the pretrial discovery stage. A hearing date has not been set.
Palij, Reimer and others accused of being Trawniki guards (the most famous Trawniki "graduate" is Ivan Demjanjuk of Cleveland, a Treblinka guard who in 1993 was found not guilty by the Israeli Supreme Court of being the notorious "Ivan the Terrible") were "middle-level to lower-level in the [Third Reich’s] organizational hierarchy," Rosenbaum said.
"I do not feel that any of these were ‘minor participants,’ " he said. "In many cases they were the people who had the direct contact" with persecuted Jews and other Nazi victims.
Most of the highest-ranking leaders of the Final Solution took their own lives at the end of the war or were tried at the postwar Nuremberg Trials, leaving lower-ranking Nazis to be pursued by OSI and similar investigative units in other countries.
"We continue, as we have done for years, to focus on that level. We continue to file cases, and they are strong cases," Rosenbaum said. "As time goes on, you find fewer and fewer of people at the decision-making level," who were already middle-aged during the war.
The SS guards, and members of Lithuanian police units (also the subject of several OSI actions) were mostly in their 20s then and thus many are still alive.
"There are thousands all over the world, mostly in Germany and Austria," Rosenbaum said.
The OSI complaint against Palij "is a reminder of exactly what happened" during and after the war, said Mark Weitzman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s task force against hate.
"After the war the focus was on the Germans," he said. The Trawniki guards "are ethnic collaborators."
Palij was born in Piadyki, a town in a part of Poland that is now Ukraine.
"For the Jewish community, it shows that the commitment is still there" to bring accused Nazi supporters to justice, Weitzman said, "even if they are not the top leaders, even if they are little cogs who thought their actions would go unnoticed."
"There is a resonance," he said, "that when Jews are targets around the world, this country is not going to allow in its midst people who made Jews targets."
Sixty-seven individuals who assisted in Nazi persecution have been stripped of U.S. citizenship and 54 have been removed from the country since OSI began in 1979. More than 160 people remain under investigation.
The Trawniki men, most of them captured Soviet soldiers, trained at a location identified by former OSI director Neal Sher as a "school for mass murder." They 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 Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec.
The OSI complaint does not accuse Palij of direct participation in a specific war crime, but states that as an armed guard he "compelled … prisoners [ at an adjacent slave labor camp] to work … prevented them from escaping" and because of his service at Trawniki had a role in "a unit which committed atrocities."
"Palij and his fellow ‘Trawniki men’ played instrumental roles in carrying out Adolf Hitler’s genocidal ambitions by rounding up, guarding, and helping to murder Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Poland," Rosenbaum stated in a Justice Department press release.