For the Love of Jews // Dov Hikind reflects on his decade-long effort to convince the United States to deport Nazi death camp guard Jakiw Palij, as well as on his 36-year career as a state assemblyman

When Dov Hikind tells me he knew that if Jakiw Palij was ever going to be deported it was going to happen under the Trump administration, it feels like déjà vu all over again. Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin’s attorneys used almost the identical words to express their gratitude for his commutation. Despite all the controversy surrounding the current president, his policies have undoubtedly been very good for the Jewish community. The decision to have 95-year-old Jakiw Palij carried out from his home in Queens on a stretcher by US marshals and expelled from America is certainly a prime example.

Palij had been tracked down by Justice Department sleuths by the early 1990s, and when confronted about his Nazi past, he readily admitted that he was not a farmer during World War II as he had claimed in order to obtain US citizenship in 1957. But even after he was stripped of his citizenship and ordered to be deported in 2004, nothing happened. The government claimed that neither Ukraine nor Germany would take him, and not many efforts were made to convince them.

In 1941, Palij was an 18-year-old peasant boy living on the Polish-Ukrainian border when Germany invaded Ukraine, and he was probably the last Nazi death camp guard to have resided in the United States. Ukrainian captives who were willing to collaborate with the Nazis were dubbed “Hiwis,” an abbreviation for the German word “Hilfswilliger,” meaning “voluntary assistant” or “willing helper,” and were sent to a special concentration camp near Lublin, Poland, for training. Although Germany was unwavering in its murderous plans to exterminate Europe’s Jews, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, worried that it might have a demoralizing effect on his elite troops, so many of the concentration camps and ghettos were staffed with Hiwis such as Palij.

Branded as traitors, the Hiwis couldn’t return home after the war, and a number of them made their way to the United States as refugees, including Jakiw Palij. The US government subsequently obtained testimony placing Palij among the Hiwis who had been dispatched to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. At least 200,000 people were brutalized and killed in that process. While Palij denied being in Warsaw he admitted to being at Trawniki, where he was present in some capacity as 6,000 Jews were lined up and shot. A few workers were spared long enough to burn their corpses on a giant grill made of railroad tracks and to dig pits for the charred remains. Then they too were gunned down.

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