Ex-Nazi guard lived quiet life

Former Auschwitz battalion member's peaceful American retirement ended Tuesday

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

He didn't run, he didn't disappear. The former Nazi lived peacefully in a Philadelphia row house, sometimes feeding treats to his neighbor's dog.

Johann Breyer's true identity had stopped being a secret decades ago, at least to the U.S. government and the dwindling number of Nazi hunters who knew his name.

As a young man, Mr. Breyer had been an SS guard at Auschwitz, where the Nazis killed more than a million victims, the vast majority of them Jews. He'd worn the skull-and-crossbones insignia of the "Death's Head" guard battalion to which he belonged, according to court records, but said he never hurt anyone.

In 1952, Mr. Breyer came to the U.S. to build a new life. For almost seven decades after the war, he did not face a criminal trial. But his quiet American retirement ended Tuesday, when U.S. Marshals arrested him at home.

Now 89, Mr. Breyer faces extradition to Germany, where he is accused of complicity in the deaths of 216,000 Jews who died at the Auschwitz complex in Nazi-occupied Poland while he was there, prosecutors said. (Overall, an estimated 11 million people were killed in the Holocaust, 6 million of them Jews.)

A hearing will be held before a U.S. magistrate in August. Mr. Breyer's attorney did not return messages seeking comment.

A neighbor of 20 years said Mr. Breyer was an unlikely war criminal.

"He didn't seem like what history says a Nazi should be like," Ken Perkins said. "He just seemed like an ordinary person who wasn't hiding anything."

By no accounts was Mr. Breyer a key cog in the Nazi movement. Born a farm-boy of German descent in eastern Slovakia, he enlisted in the Waffen-SS -- the armed wing of the Nazi party -- at age 17 after receiving a recruitment letter in 1942.

Mr. Breyer's version of events, revealed in court records, is that he was drafted and that the mayor of his village told him he had to go. Even though he was assigned to the Death's Head guard battalion at Auschwitz, he said, he refused to kill anyone, so he served as a perimeter guard. He says he never shepherded prisoners from the trains to the gas chambers.

Mr. Breyer says he soon deserted, hiding in barns and the woods before rejoining his unit for combat duty against the Russians as the war's end neared.

But officials say there is no record of Mr. Breyer deserting and assert that his unit would have been closely involved with handling the prisoners who were put to death.

"That's one of the oldest defenses," said Aaron Breitbart, a senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "The perimeter-guard defense, and the baker defense: 'Yes, I was there, but I was a baker.' ... It seems as though everybody is a perimeter guard when they're finally caught. Well, not everybody who is caught could have been a perimeter guard."

Mr. Breyer says his war ended when he was captured by Soviet troops. When he immigrated to the United States, he omitted his background as an SS guard at the death camp, according to court records. He became a U.S. citizen in 1957.

Decades later, in 1992, U.S. officials tried to revoke his citizenship to make it easier to deport him for his alleged crimes. But during denaturalization proceedings it was revealed that Mr. Breyer's mother was an American, born in Pennsylvania, who later moved to Slovakia.

In a series of court battles lasting more than a decade, Mr. Breyer successfully argued that his mother had unknowingly bestowed him with American citizenship at birth, meaning he couldn't be deported for lying to get a visa -- because, secretly, he had been an American all along.



You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here