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The Hunt for Hitler's Hidden Soldiers in America
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In the tiny Polish village of Trawniki, the SS set up a school for mass murder and then recruited a roving army of foot soldiers, 5,000 men strong, to help annihilate the Jewish population of occupied Poland. After the war, some of these men vanished, making their way to the U.S. and blending into communities across America. Though they participated in some of the most unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust, “Trawniki Men” spent years hiding in plain sight, their terrible secrets intact.
In a story spanning seven decades, Citizen 865 chronicles the harrowing wartime journeys of two Jewish orphans from occupied Poland who outran the men of Trawniki and settled in the United States, only to learn that some of their one-time captors had followed. A tenacious team of prosecutors and historians pursued these men and, up against the forces of time and political opposition, battled to the present day to remove them from U.S. soil.
Through insider accounts and research in four countries, this urgent and powerful narrative provides a front row seat to the dramatic turn of events that allowed a small group of American Nazi hunters to hold murderous men accountable for their crimes decades after the war’s end.
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At a crowded holiday party in 2016, I met a lawyer from the US Department of Justice. Over a long conversation, Robin Gold described the history and mission of a unit deep inside the massive federal agency that had raced against time to track, identify, and bring to justice Nazi perpetrators found in America’s cities and suburbs in the years after World War II. For three decades, the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) pursued a series of high-profile cases against concentration camp guards, police leaders, Nazi collaborators, and propagandists. I found one lesser-known investigation particularly compelling: the search for the men of Trawniki.
Citizen 865 is a story about darkness but also about light, the pursuit of truth by a team of American Nazi hunters that worked to expose the men behind the most lethal operation in the Holocaust. Year after year, the team scrambled to hold these collaborators accountable for their crimes, not only for those who had perished in the war but also for those who had survived, and for the benefit of a world that too often finds itself in the exact same place more than seventy years later, forced to explain bigotry, hate, and mass murder.
This book is a work of nonfiction based on hundreds of hours of interviews with historians and federal prosecutors and thousands of pages of government documents, Nazi rosters and records, scholarly research, trial transcripts, and court filings. Most of the documents came from the US Department of Justice and the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which provided access to several dozen boxes of papers, articles, and records donated in 2015 by former OSI historian Peter Black.
Additional research was conducted in the archives and museums of Prague, Warsaw, and Lublin, Poland. Court transcripts, records, and interviews with those who had direct knowledge of conversations allowed me to reconstruct the dialogue in this book.
At the request of family members, the Polish names of survivors Feliks Wojcik and Lucyna Stryjewska have been used. Taped interviews spanning a decade and on-the-ground research in Lublin, Warsaw, and Vienna allowed me to chronicle their wartime journeys.
I also traveled to Trawniki, Poland, where Nazi leaders in the early years of the war recruited a loyal army of foot soldiers. Some of these men would eventually make their way to the United States and live undetected for years, ordinary Americans with extraordinary secrets.
Their lies unraveled under the unflinching glare of history and through the work of men and women who refused to look away.
It speaks well of American justice that it will not close the books on bestiality until the last participant has felt a frisson of fear and is routed from the land of the free.
George F. Will, the Washington Post, 1998
New York City
Nazi recruit 865 ducked into the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, rode the elevator to the seventh floor, and sat down in a hushed conference room, where three federal prosecutors were waiting. He smiled, a practiced smile, the smile of an old friend. Tufts of silver hair were combed neatly over his ears, and a mustache grown long ago straddled a thin upper lip. He was lean from years of careful eating and late nights spent in the dance halls of Munich after the war, gliding across the floor to music that reminded him of home.
“Ready?” one of the lawyers asked.
He nodded, clear-eyed and steady, and raised his right hand. “I affirm to tell the truth.”
His eastern European accent had softened over the years, and the words sounded lyrical, a light and mellow promise. He was an obliging helper who had come when he was called, traveling all this way from a modest frame house on the shoreline of Lake Carmel, sixty miles upstate, where retirement waited on a spit of a beach and in the faded blue dinghies that bobbed along the water.
Even his name was benign, shortened to three quick beats decades earlier when he had stood before an American flag and vowed to defend the Constitution. Jakob Reimer, the newest citizen of the United States, had given himself a new name. Jack.
“We could do this in another language, such as German, if you prefer,” the lawyer offered.
“No, no,” Reimer replied. Before these new friends, he would share a great secret. “To tell the truth, I used to read and write German.…Now I have forgotten.”
From across the table, Eli Rosenbaum managed a slight smile. Years earlier, he had questioned a Polish man who once kept meticulous count of how many bullets he had used to kill Jews during a roundup in the war. At the start of the interview, Rosenbaum shook the man’s hand and mused to himself that he had earned his annual government salary in that single moment, forced to make pleasantries with a murderer.
Rosenbaum had investigated and prosecuted dozens of Nazi perpetrators since then, concentration camp guards and police leaders who had slipped into the United States with bogus stories about war years spent on farms and in factories, far removed from the killing squads and annihilation centers of occupied Europe. But the case against Reimer was different.
Soon, the US Department of Justice would move to expose one of the most trusted and effective Nazi collaborators discovered on American soil, an elite member of a little-known SS killing force so skillfully deployed in occupied Poland that 1.7 million Jews had been murdered in less than twenty months, the span of two Polish summers.
It was midmorning in New York, and on the streets outside, city workers lingered in the sun. But inside the US Attorney’s Office, in the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge, Rosenbaum felt as if time had given way, stretching and shrinking, as he peered at the seventy-three-year-old retired potato chip salesman who had once vowed to bring Nazi racial order to the occupied East.
“I would like to have this go as smoothly as possible,” Rosenbaum said. “But I will need the truth, Mr. Reimer, all right?”
“Look, Mr. Rosenbaum,” Reimer replied. “Let me say this. My wife says to me, ‘You always preach we should love the Jewish people and you are being picked on.’ I say, ‘You got to understand. If six million Polish people were innocently killed, you would feel the same way as the Jewish people feel.’ Any way I can help, I will be glad to help.”
It was a serene dance, and Rosenbaum decided to play along. “All you have to do is tell me exactly what happened. That is how you can help, and I think that is how you can help yourself as well.”
Rosenbaum produced Reimer’s visa application, stamped by US immigration authorities in Germany in 1952. Reimer was quiet as he studied the document, and Rosenbaum watched for flashes of fear or regret. But Reimer looked like a babysitter, not a killer.
He had lied with ease for years, hiding in plain sight in middle-class America, and now he had American sons and an American wife, a church, a Social Security card, a two-story house in the hamlet of Lake Carmel, population eight thousand. Time had been good to Reimer, every new year, every new decade, distance from a loaded rifle and a uniform bearing the stripes of a first sergeant.
But now Rosenbaum knew better. Seven stories above Manhattan, four thousand miles from Poland and forty-seven years after the end of the war, Rosenbaum was quite certain that the man sitting before him had once been part of one of the most diabolical operations in the Holocaust.
He studied Reimer.
“The Trawniki camp,” Rosenbaum said carefully, “that was an SS training camp…right?”
The Shtetl of Zolochiv
Go east, his father had said, since there was no place left to run. Pass the synagogue on Jateczna Street and the candy shop in Old Town, pass the school buildings and the tenement buildings with windows of white lace. Pass the stone benches where old Polish men sit and whisper and the farms and fields that stretch for miles, slicked by winter’s first frost.
Go east toward the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Go east and go far.
Nineteen-year-old Feliks Wojcik had fled on a bicycle with only a carton of cigarettes for trading and pedaled for ten days to Lwow, a medieval city of green-domed churches that in the fall of 1939 had fallen under Soviet occupation. In the historic region of Galicia, Feliks enrolled in medical school, busing tables for food and mingling with other Jewish students who had also escaped to eastern Poland, to a town without German soldiers, where it was supposed to be safe.
For many months, Feliks had thought of his mother, Sophie, who once fancied young Feliks a musical protégé, wedging cork between his fingers so that his tiny hands could span the octaves of his first violin. How long since he had slept in his rambling house in Lublin, filled with family and classical music and the smell of fresh onion rolls, nearly two decades without hunger or pain?
In the bustling city southeast of Warsaw, his father had gone to night school to become an architect, and the family settled into a grand apartment house outside the cramped Jewish quarter, where shoemakers and carpenters of more meager means squeezed into narrow houses, hauling water by the bucket from an old stone well. Other young Jews in Lublin grew up fearing flashes of antisemitism, homemade weapons fashioned from rocks or gnarled sticks, suitable for a serious beating.
But Feliks, at five foot nine, with a slender face, deep green eyes, and an impish half grin, had lived in a far more assimilated world, studying French and Latin in a Polish-Catholic high school that his father had helped build.
“What do you think of my son being considered as a student in your school?” his father, Samuel, had once asked the bishop. “Would it be possible for him?”
“Of course it would be possible,” the bishop had replied and then arranged for a Jewish professor to visit weekly so that the school’s only Jewish pupil would have the chance to learn his own history, the customs and teachings that had guided generations of families.
Feliks had spent long, happy evenings performing in a family quartet with his older sister, Sala, who played the piano, an uncle who played the cello, and a cousin who played the viola. He spent summer afternoons on a tennis court and winters on a sled in a park in the city center, near a teeming Jewish market that sold wheat-dough pancakes topped with onion and poppy seeds.
Once a year his father took him to a prayer house inside a stranger’s living room, but it was stuffy and boring and Feliks wasn’t allowed to eat until sundown. This, he knew, was his father’s duty, a gentle way of showing Feliks what it meant to be a Jew.
Lublin had fallen early, just weeks after the Germans denounced a nonaggression pact with the Polish government and invaded from the north, south, and west, crushing Polish defense forces. It had been a stunning onslaught, watched across the world, and as tension mounted in Europe, Britain and France two days later declared war on Germany.
The Germans considered Lublin a strategic acquisition, with a railway that connected the east to the west and more than forty thousand Jews who could repair guns, clear forests, mend shoes, and build the forced-labor camps that under German rule would soon rise across the Polish countryside. There was much to do: Adolf Hitler was looking to create living space for the German people, and Poland provided a rich and bountiful expanse of farmland.
One night, Feliks’s father had staggered home, beaten by a mob of Germans and Poles. His only son had to escape.
Jews had lived in Poland since the Middle Ages, but even in Lublin, with two Yiddish newspapers, a Jewish hospital and orphanage, three Jewish cemeteries, twelve synagogues, and the largest rabbinical school in the world, there was no place to hide. There were no friends to help.
Factories, businesses, and universities were shuttered. Jews had been made to give up their cameras, furs, radios. Gone was the violin that Feliks had once played until his fingers were raw. The Germans had issued a forced-labor decree, rounding up Jews from across the city for backbreaking work in labor camps.
It would be safer in the east, Feliks’s parents had reasoned, in one of the Polish cities or towns annexed by the Soviets under a nonaggression pact that Hitler had struck with Joseph Stalin, containing a secret deal to divide up eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
In the final months of 1939, Feliks had said good-bye to his parents and sister and left the so-called Government General of Poland—a German occupation zone of the newly defeated country, covering much of central, southern, and, eventually, southeastern Poland, including Warsaw and Lublin. He traveled 220 kilometers from home, sneaking across the demarcation line along the winding Bug River. He soon arrived in the Soviet-occupied city of Lwow, settled in the fifth century and home to several hundred thousand Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews.
He managed to complete nearly two years of medical school, getting by in student housing and dodging the Russian soldiers who were rounding up able-bodied men for work in faraway Soviet coal mines.
But as the summer of 1941 crept closer, the tenuous state of affairs in Poland was about to grow worse.
IN JUNE, HITLER directed the German army to carry out a surprise attack against the Soviet Union, his partner in the conquest of Poland. Operation Barbarossa would become one of the largest military operations in modern warfare, launched by Hitler to eliminate the threat of Communism and gain control of land within the Soviet Union.
In Poland, German soldiers crossed the demarcation line into territories controlled by the Soviets. They soon marched into Lwow, a terrifying sight, and in the bedlam that followed, motley gangs of students stalked the halls of Feliks’s dormitory, searching for Jews. He was pushed to the ground and ordered to scrub the floor of a new pub for German officers.
The Germans tended to favor Ukrainians, unless they were Jews or Communists, and across the city local militants trolled the streets, stripping and beating Jewish men and women. Later, Feliks would learn that German soldiers had roused the crowds by spreading rumors that Jews were responsible for the mass killings of local prisoners under Soviet occupation.
The mobs forced Feliks into a sprawling labor camp set up in a factory on the outskirts of the city, desolate rows of brick buildings with barbed-wire fences and barracks with wooden boxes for beds. The prisoners worked on the pier at the River Poltva, which flowed through the city. Those who grew tired and slouched were kicked from all sides by German guards.
Don’t go down, Feliks told himself as he joined the others. He pretended his body was numb. The work went on for hours, and when it was done the prisoners were made to run back to the barracks, past the bodies of men who had been shot and left for dead.
Feliks managed to slip past the guards several days later, running until he could no longer see the camp. Back in town, the Germans were looking for mechanics, and Feliks quickly decided that working in a garage commandeered by the German police seemed a far better option than the confines of a brutal forced-labor camp. He volunteered with a group of Jewish men.
“I have no blind idea about mechanics,” Feliks confided to the Polish man who appeared to be in charge. It was a risky admission, but Feliks reasoned that the head mechanic would soon have seen for himself.
“Shhh,” the man said. “Be quiet. We’ll help you when we can. You do what I tell you to do.”
Feliks tapped and tinkered and twisted, making a good show of it until a German officer pulled him into a quiet corner of the garage.
“Is it true you’re a medical student?”
Feliks hesitated, studying the officer, a doctor in the German army who appeared to be in his late twenties.
“Yes,” Feliks said softly.
“Look.” The doctor’s voice was urgent. “As of tonight, they’re going to take all of you away. I don’t know where.”
The doctor pointed to a cluster of buildings just beyond the garage. “There’s a stable on the left side of the building there. I’ll give you something to carry for me to the stable and meet you there.”
Feliks walked quickly, careful not to draw attention from the German soldiers who were milling about the garage. In the stable, the doctor motioned to a secluded corner near some horses. “They will never find you there.”
Feliks crouched low.
“Somehow, you have to get out of here and go to town,” the doctor instructed and slipped away.
He returned once more, late in the night, to give Feliks a cooked chicken. It was a benevolent gesture in a world that had gone mad, and Feliks could scarcely find the words to thank him.
“That’s all I can do for you,” the doctor said. “I’m so sorry.”
He frowned and disappeared.
The next morning, the garage was cleaned out, the Jewish workers whisked away, just as the doctor had promised. The only place Feliks knew to go was his dormitory, and he crept inside and made his way downstairs. In the basement, he discovered three Jewish medical students huddled on the floor, the shallow breathing of hunted men, waiting in the darkness.
LWOW WAS STILL overrun by mobs. Feliks and his three classmates decided to go farther east, through fields and forests that would provide cover under the night sky. They crept out of the dormitory and walked, kilometer after kilometer, the town giving way to farmland. Sometime in the night, a Russian truck rumbled past, and Feliks waved his hands over his head, frantic, hoping the soldiers might take them to Moscow. But the soldiers only pointed their guns and drove on.
Feliks and his companions kept walking, passing grain and sugar-beet farms, until they saw a small village in the distance. The shtetl of Zolochiv, once part of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, was one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Galicia. They inched toward town in silence, taking slow, measured steps through thickets of birch and fir trees, unsure what they would find beyond the tree line.
The armed men seemed to come out of nowhere, from behind, from the sides, guns drawn. Quickly, they forced Feliks and his classmates into the town square. Bodies were everywhere, piled one on top of the other. At first glance, Feliks thought they were praying.
“Line up! Hands up!” someone shouted.
The square was a mass execution site.
Pushed to his knees on the cobblestone street strewn with the dead, Feliks looked straight ahead at the brick wall in front of him. German officers prepared to fire before a rapt crowd, hundreds of local farmers and shop owners who had poured into the village to welcome the Germans with bread and salt, certain that the Germans would be far less violent than the Soviets.
Feliks closed his eyes and waited, three seconds, five, ten, his mind and body still. This, he decided, must be what death feels like.
He thought about his father, who months earlier had managed to slip out of German-occupied Lublin and make his way to Lwow. Soviet soldiers caught him swimming across a narrow expanse of the Bug River and accused him of being a spy.
“I am a Jew looking for my son,” he had pleaded.
The soldiers let him go, and he soon found the dormitory where Feliks was staying. He cried when he saw Feliks, who had nothing but a dirty overcoat with a missing button to keep warm at night.
Feliks had marveled at the sight of his father, familiar eyes and a familiar smile in a town of strangers. “Don’t worry about me here,” Feliks said. “At least nobody is going to kill me. Nobody is going to shoot me.”
His father pointed to Feliks’s coat. “If your mother would see that, she would be very unhappy,” he admonished. In town, he found a needle, thread, and a new button.
“Stay with me,” Feliks pleaded. They would look for ways to bring everyone else.
His father only shook his head. “There is no way. There is no way to do that.”
Several days later, his father returned to Lublin.
Crouched in the execution line alongside the three other students, Feliks waited for the first bullet. He felt almost peaceful, as if he were floating underwater, no sound, no movement. Years later, he would come to believe that his body was defending itself in a final, agonizing moment of violence.
Twenty seconds. Thirty. Feliks figured that he must be dead already. Such a short life, Feliks decided, a mere twenty years.
Finally, he opened his eyes and blinked, taking in the scene around him. The German executioners and many of the spectators had been sprayed by bullets. He looked to his right and saw one of his classmates slumped over, shot dead in a puddle of blood. Then Feliks saw the shadows of two departing Soviet warplanes. They had fired into the town square just as the execution squad was taking aim, striking the German officers and the boy next to him.
It was a wicked twist of fate, life and death separated by inches, the air between bodies.
Run. Feliks and his two surviving classmates darted back through the trees toward a river on the outskirts of the village. There was no place to hide except in the cold, murky water, and they sunk in neck deep. Feliks pulled brush and sticks over his head for cover. He lost track of time, the rise of the sun and the moon. The water was relentless. It numbed his limbs until he was too miserable to care about dying. Several days passed. Finally, he pulled himself out of the river and inched back toward town with the others, passing a group of local men.
One of them laughed. “Three more Jews not killed?”
But the pogroms that had swept eastern Poland in the days after the German invasion were finally over. Up the road, they found a Jewish hospital that was still in operation, and the three boys stripped off their rotting clothes and sank into beds. Feliks couldn’t bring himself to sleep. He wanted to get word to his father. He needed to tell his family that he was still alive.
Feliks and his classmates left the hospital and made their way back to Lwow, through the fields they had crossed only days earlier. In town, Feliks found a Polish man who was willing to smuggle a message to Lublin.
Feliks would never know exactly how his father had persuaded a Polish cab driver to help a Jewish boy in a country where such a gesture, if discovered, meant certain death. But three days later, under the cover of night, a driver from Lublin inched into Lwow. Feliks said good-bye to his classmates, slipped into the stranger’s car, and closed his eyes.
He was going home.
The Color of Blood
- "This riveting saga, replete with heroes and villains, is the true story of a few good men and women who worked tenaciously to expunge an evil in our midst."—George F. Will, author of The Conservative Sensibility
- "Enriched by Debbie Cenziper's world-class investigative skills, Citizen 865 is a powerful piece of history that washes over you in waves of horror and beauty."—David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good American Family
"Debbie Cenziper has written a page-turning detective story about the hunt for Nazi killers living openly in neighborhoods across the United States....This is a book that anybody interested in the quest for international justice should read."
—Michael Isikoff, New York Times bestselling co-author of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump
"This is a gripping tale, which reads at times like a novel. Just when you thought you knew everything about the Holocaust, we learn about the uniquely devastating role of the Trawniki training center. At a time of rising anti-Semitism, Debbie Cenziper's Citizen 865 offers a harrowing reminder of the consequences of unchecked racism and anti-Semitism. And it serves as a repository of hope-that the leadership of good men and women could bring a measure of justice to the world in the face of such overwhelming evil."
—Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO and National Director, Anti-Defamation League
- "Citizen 865 is a great book that couldn't come at a more crucial time. In telling the story of a little-known Holocaust site called Trawniki and the people who dedicated themselves to bringing some of modern history's worst monsters to justice, Debbie Cenziper has honored the vanishing plea to never forget, first by breaking my heart with the worst of humanity, and then, with the best of us, stitching it back together."—Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist David Finkel, author of Thank You for Your Service and The Good Soldiers
- "Citizen 865 is a fantastic piece of detective work.... A compulsively readable story of mass murder and an epic quest by Nazi hunters to bring evil men to justice."—Alex Kershaw, New York Times bestselling author of The Bedford Boys and The Longest Winter
- "Citizen 865 reads like a thriller, but it is so much more... [It] tells an essential and unknown tale of post-war justice and the search for truth, linking the events of the Holocaust to the familiar, more recent past. Telling this story of a decades-long quest for justice is itself an act of justice. "—Ariel Burger, author of Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom and winner of the National Jewish Book Award in Biography
"Anchored in painstaking research and reporting, Citizen 865 chronicles the efforts of the lawyers and historians of the Office of Special Investigations to rid the United States of the Third Reich's mass murderers who had been hiding in plain sight. Debbie Cenziper's account vividly-and movingly-captures both the frustrations and triumphs of this extraordinary group of dedicated men and women who refused to abandon the quest for a measure of long overdue justice."
—Andrew Nagorski, author of 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War and The Nazi Hunters
- "Cenziper brought her investigative skills to bear on the challenge of retrieving the hard facts, but she also possesses the gift of a storyteller....[Citizen 865 is] a highly significant work of investigation that is eye-opening and heartbreaking. She compels us to confront the crimes of the Trawniki men in a way that burns itself into both memory and history."—Washington Post
- "Skillfully written and reported....Riveting....Cenziper's account moves cinematically around in time and place."—The Forward
- "Brilliant....Intriguing....[Citizen 865 is] a powerful book and reads like a fast-paced mystery novel. But it is not fiction. It is a story and history worth reading and knowing."—Jewish Exponent
- "For Cenziper, who is Jewish, the question of delayed justice remains a key theme in the book."—The Miami Herald
- "Excellent....Well researched work of historical non-fiction reads like a fast-paced fictional thriller. [Citizen 865] provides a comprehensive and insightful presentation, not only of the painstaking work of the OSI, but also the personal lives and motivations of the attorneys and historians who staffed it."—Times of Israel
- "[Citizen 865] is serious journalism at its best....a history worth reading and knowing....a hopeful book about the power of knowing history and the rule of law."—LA Review of Books
"A Pulitzer-worthy investigation....Debbie Cenziper provides stunning insights into these Nazi hunters' skill, accomplishments, and dedication....Passionate, provocative, and artfully constructed, this fully engaging work of deeply humanized scholarship is a fine addition to the literature of the Holocaust and its aftermath."
—Washington Independent Review of Books
- "Cenziper's sophomore effort...is of vital importance....Fast-paced, well-researched, and rife with touching human details, Citizen 865 is a rarity: a thrilling work of historical nonfiction that readers will struggle to put down....Beautifully human, devoted to detail, and thoroughly enthralling...Cenziper has written a book with the power to compel its readers to honor the Holocaust's devastating history."—The Federalist
- "I have read fictional thrillers far less gripping than Citizen 865."—The Charlotte Observer
"Gripping... [A] brisk, thrilling account."
"With much human interest, Cenziper draws out all the implications for principles of justice for victims and perpetrators of unspeakable crimes."
—Booklist (starred review)
- "Cenziper provid[es] fascinating insight into the personalities, motivations, and procedures of the OSI prosecutors.... The accounts of Lucyna and Felix...are told with a great deal of empathy."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Nov 12, 2019
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Hachette Books