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The main gate of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, Poland. The sign reads “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free”).

Associated Press file,

Pennsylvania toolmaker faces Auschwitz charges

  • Article by: Eric Lichtblau and Jon Hurdle
  • New York Times
  • June 18, 2014 - 9:20 PM

– Johann Breyer, 89, shuffled unsteadily into a federal courtroom on Wednesday morning, using a cane for support as he sunk slowly into a chair at the defense table.

The retired toolmaker from what was then Czechoslovakia, who immigrated to the United States in 1952, was thin and pale and dressed in a green jail uniform after a night spent in lockup following his arrest at his home in Philadelphia.

He looked confused at times, too, but when the judge asked him if he understood why German authorities wanted to put him on trial there, he answered simply, “Yes.”

Nothing about his demeanor suggested the long-ago secrets that the authorities in Germany and the United States say Breyer has carried with him for 70 years. Authorities say that as an armed guard at the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, Breyer was complicit in the gassing of 216,000 Jews brought there in 1944 from Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Germany.

The Germans, seeking to have him extradited to the Wieden district to stand trial, have charged him with 158 counts of “aiding and abetting” in murder — one count for each of the 158 trainloads of Jews brought to the killing center at Auschwitz in a six-month span.

Most of the so-called deportees, including many thousands of women, children and old people, were killed in gas chambers almost immediately after arriving at Auschwitz, then cremated.

Questioned decades ago

Breyer admitted two decades ago, when first questioned by U.S. authorities, that he had worked as a guard at Auschwitz. He said that he did so “involuntarily” and had nothing to do with the deaths.

His attorney, Dennis Boyle, insisted that Breyer worked in a prison section of Auschwitz, not among those guards in the extermination area. “He was absolutely not one of those guards,” Boyle said.

U.S. and German investigators assert — based on Auschwitz camp rosters and newly disclosed documents — that Breyer was a willing collaborator who participated in the death-camp operations after first volunteering for SS duty at the age of 17. German prosecutors brought the charges against him in a secret, sealed indictment last year, but the charges were made public only Wednesday after his arrest.

For years, Germany was unwilling to take back Nazis discovered in the United States, causing tensions between the two countries. But Breyer’s surprise arrest at his home in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, based on the extradition request from Germany, underscored a new cooperation between the two countries in prosecuting people suspected of being Nazis.

Too old to be prosecuted?

Since the 2011 conviction in Germany of John Demjanjuk, the onetime autoworker in Ohio who was a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp, the Germans have opened investigations of several dozen suspects in their 80s or older.

Breyer’s arrest also reignited a debate over such arrests, even with much younger defendants: whether any person suspected of being a Nazi is too old to be prosecuted for past crimes.

Some comments posted Wednesday on social media sites objected to the arrest of an 89-year-old, saying that the time had passed for litigating crimes seven decades old. But others said crimes as heinous as genocide deserved to be punished, no matter how long ago they occurred.

“The fact that this guy got away with what he did for so long doesn’t mean that he should continue to get away with it,” Neal Sher, former director of the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting office, said in an interview.

Breyer and his wife, who was with him in the courtroom on Wednesday, lived in a redbrick townhouse in a blue-collar neighborhood. Neighbors said they knew nothing of the earlier accusations.

“He was a nice guy who fed my dog treats and talked to my parents when they came down,” said Ken Perkins, a neighbor for about 20 years.

Boyle, Breyer’s lawyer, said his client suffered from early signs of dementia and other health issues. He said that Breyer posed no flight risk and that his frail health should make him eligible for bail.

But Magistrate Timothy R. Rice refused to release him, citing “the serious nature of the crime.”

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