In this New York Times bestseller, once-secret government records and interviews tell the full story of the thousands of Nazis—from concentration camp guards to high-level officers in the Third Reich—who came to the United States after World War II and quietly settled into new lives.
Many gained entry on their own as self-styled war “refugees.” But some had help from the US government. The CIA, the FBI, and the military all put Hitler’s minions to work as spies, intelligence assets, and leading scientists and engineers, whitewashing their histories. Only years after their arrival did private sleuths and government prosecutors begin trying to identify the hidden Nazis. Now, relying on a trove of newly disclosed documents and scores of interviews, Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter Eric Lichtblau reveals this little-known and “disturbing” chapter of postwar history (Salon).
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Spring 1945 FÖHRENWALD DISPLACED PERSONS CAMP, OUTSIDE MUNICH
While the Nazis fled, their victims were left to languish.
These were the "lucky" ones: hundreds of thousands of Jews, Catholics, gays, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists, Roma, and other "parasites" enslaved in Nazi concentration camps who, somehow, had managed to survive Hitler's genocidal killing machine. Yet even after Germany's defeat, the survivors remained imprisoned for months in the same camps where the Nazis had first put them to rot.
The names of their jailers had changed, with the dark Nazi swastikas now replaced by the bright-colored flags of the Allied victors flying above the camps, but the barbed wire fences and armed guards still encircled them. They were in a postwar purgatory, living in horrific conditions that a high-level emissary of President Truman would compare to those imposed by the Nazis themselves.
Jacob Biber, a Jew who survived the Nazi purge in the Ukraine, was among the masses confined in the American DP camp at Föhrenwald. "We felt like so much surplus junk," Biber would write of his confinement, "human garbage which the governments of the world wished would somehow go away."
The conditions faced by the survivors inside the Allied DP camps after Germany's defeat that fateful spring of 1945 were revolting in their own right. What made their confinement even more unthinkable was that, all the while, their Nazi tormentors were scattering to the winds. With few obstacles in their path, thousands of Hitler's helpers were heading to America, visas in hand, to start their lives anew. The flight of the Nazis, in the face of the survivors' brutal treatment at the hands of their Allied rescuers, amounted to one final, damning indignity.
The chilling irony could be reduced to simple math: every Nazi who managed to get a golden ticket out of Europe for passage to America meant one fewer "displaced person" in the Allied camps who would be able to get out. Visas to America, especially in the early months and years after the war, were precious and few; with more than seven million people across Europe left stateless, only forty thousand people were admitted to the United States in the first three years after the war, despite calls for America to open its shores. Lingering anti-Semitism meant the denial of visas en masse to Holocaust survivors crammed into the DP camps. Yet Nazi collaborators and even SS members in Hitler's reign of persecution, men who had proudly worn the Nazi uniform, were often able to enter the United States as "war refugees."
Thousands of Nazis sneaked in on their own, easily gaming the American immigration system. But hundreds more had help — from senior military and intelligence officials at the Pentagon, the CIA, and other agencies who believed that the new immigrants — despite their obvious Nazi ties, or sometimes because of them — could help vanquish the Soviet menace. No one hated the Soviets more than the Nazis, officials in Washington liked to say, and they wanted to exploit that enmity.
So it was that the United States became home to men like Jakob Reimer, a Ukrainian who settled in Queens and made a good living running a restaurant and selling potato chips. In coming to America in 1952, Reimer described himself as a German POW who worked an office job in the war years. Left out of his official biography were the more haunting aspects of his wartime service: raiding Jewish villages as a decorated SS officer, and training Nazi guards at Trawniki. American immigration officials did not press him to explain what he had done during the war, and he wasn't going to volunteer it. He got a visa with little difficulty, while Holocaust survivors in Europe struggled to find someplace that would take them. As an American prosecutor told a judge decades later: "He was never entitled to immigrate to the United States ... There were only a limited number of visas back then, and Mr. Reimer took the visa of a real victim."
And so, with horror-ridden places like Warsaw and Trawniki and Auschwitz effectively whited out of their histories, Reimer and thousands like him were able to remake themselves into just the type of wartime refugee the United States was willing to welcome to its shores. They had become Americans.
The Allies had come at Hitler from all sides in those early months of 1945; the Russians from the east; the Americans and the British from the west. One by one, the Allied forces discovered scenes of horror and madness in concentration camps abandoned by the retreating Nazis. Inside the camps remained tens of thousands of survivors amid heaps of unburied corpses. Generations later, the mind's eye imagines the world embracing the survivors: the iron gates to the camps must have swung open at the arrival of the Allied forces, with a mass of bone-thin victims pouring into the awaiting arms of a world filled at once with shock, guilt, and joy over their rescue. Like trapped coal miners freed from a mineshaft, or a wrongly accused prisoner finally let out of prison, they were free at last. Home-cooked meals, warm beds, hot showers, and attentive doctors must have awaited them.
The reality was much darker.
Many thousands of the survivors did not leave the Allied camps; some not for months, some not for years, some not at all. Thousands died from disease and malnourishment even after Hitler's defeat. At Dachau, at Bergen-Belsen, and at dozens of DP camps like them, they remained jailed inside the walls that Hitler had erected. With the survivors surrounded by the stench of death and squalor, the liberating Allied forces, led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, would not allow them to leave. The world didn't know what to do with them.
Crowded and ill fed, the survivors were left to wear their striped camp uniforms, the same uniforms that had become such a toxic symbol of Nazi oppression. In some DP camps, they were bunked side by side with Nazi POWs who were held there as well — people who, just months earlier, had been their wartime tormentors. Some Nazi prisoners were even put in charge of Jewish inmates at the Allied camps, ruling over them even indefeat. Exiled Jews in the camps who were originally from Germany, Austria, and other Axis nations were classified and treated by the Allies not as victims but as "enemy nationals" because of their countries of origin, no different from the Nazi prisoners jailed with them.
Just as remarkably, thousands of German doctors and nurses who had inflicted the Nazis' grotesque brand of medical care at the concentration camps were still being deployed at the DP camps — except now they worked for the Allies. At Dachau alone, more than six hundred medical personnel from the Germans' Wehrmacht military division — doctors, dentists, nurses, and orderlies — now counted themselves as members of the Allied medical staff, handling the survivors.
Many of the Germans had it better. At Allied-run camps reserved for German prisoners of war, ex-Nazi officers watched movies, played soccer, even took college courses. At Jewish DP camps, meanwhile, the Holocaust survivors fought merely to get extra rations of soggy black bread and coffee to make up for the starvation of the war years. American officials resisted; they complained that the Jews were getting "preferential" treatment and were using black-market systems at the camps to violate limits on food rations. The situation became so volatile that German police — with the consent of American officials — staged a raid on black-market activities in the Stuttgart and Landsberg camps in early 1946; rioting broke out, with police killing one Jewish DP. He had survived the Holocaust, but not its aftermath.
With word of the survivors' conditions filtering back to Washington, President Truman sent a special emissary, Earl Harrison, a former immigration commissioner who was dean of the University of Pennsylvania law school, to inspect the DP camps and assess the plight, in particular, of the Jewish refugees. The World Jewish Congress and other humanitarian organizations were protesting "conditions of abject misery." The reports seemed unbelievable. Could these horrific accounts of squalor, desperation, and mistreatment among the survivors — all in the wake of the Allied victory — really be true? Harrison was told to find out.
Harrison's blistering conclusions cast a pall over America's postwar euphoria. His findings were an indictment of the United States' refugee effort in the harshest terms he knew. "As matters now stand," Harrison wrote to Truman after touring the DP camps, "we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them." The Nazis' victims, the dean found, were being victimized once again — but this time by the Americans.
General George S. Patton, the gruff war hero whose soldiers ran the American DP camps, fumed over Harrison's findings. Publicly, the general — Old Blood and Guts, as he was famously known — had adopted a posture of shock and revulsion that spring over the Allies' discovery of the Nazi death camps, and he urged journalists to see for themselves the horrors inflicted on the victims. Privately, however, General Patton held the surviving Jews in his camps in utter contempt.
"Harrison and his ilk believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews who are lower than animals," Patton wrote in his diary after learning of the scathing report to Truman. Laying bare the rabid anti-Semitism that infected the American refugee effort, Patton complained of how the Jews in one DP camp, with "no sense of human relationships," would defecate on the floors and live in filth like lazy "locusts." He told of taking General Eisenhower to tour a makeshift synagogue that the Jews in the camp had set up to celebrate the holy day of Yom Kippur. "We entered the synagogue which was packed with the greatest stinking mass of humanity I have ever seen." This was Eisenhower's first glimpse of the DPs, Patton wrote, so it was all new to him. "Of course, I have seen them since the beginning and marveled that beings alleged to be made in the form of God can look the way they do or act the way they act."
Sadly, Patton's contempt for the Jews — from the man responsible for overseeing the survivors of the biggest genocide in world history — was not that unusual among Washington's elite. The Jews "do not desire to work, but expect to be cared for," one Senate lawyer wrote in seeking to limit the number allowed into the country after the war. "It is very doubtful that any country would desire these people as immigrants." President Truman's wife, Bess, did not welcome Jews in her home, and the president himself was known privately to deride "kikes" and "Jew boys." Still, with Britain blocking Jews from going to Palestine and the United States closing its own doors for the most part, Truman agonized over the situation in the DP camps. "Everyone else who's been dragged from his country has somewhere to go back to," Truman said, "but the Jews have no place to go."
The sense of hopelessness among the survivors trapped in the DP camps was overwhelming. They would sing old Yiddish folk songs with the children, with the words changed to reflect their plight. Where can I go? asked one song. Who can answer me? Where can I go to? When every door is locked?
Föhrenwald, near Munich, where Jacob Biber was held, was considered one of the more humanely run camps, with passable conditions and decent hygiene, yet the desperation among the prisoners was wrenching.
"A general malaise was growing as we realized how indifferent the world was to our tragedy," Biber wrote of his experience there. "Soon we began seeing men and women who had survived the worst tragedies imaginable during the war years suddenly killing themselves, often by hanging. Such events, added to the news that Palestine remained closed to us, guarded by British soldiers who were turning away DP's by the thousands, only added to our gloom."
And what of the Nazis?
While the Jacob Bibers of the Holocaust remained trapped inside the barbwired DP camps in the spring of 1945, thousands of Nazis were en route to Italy, to South America, to Australia, to Canada, and to America. With Germany's ultimate defeat foretold since early 1945, many of Hitler's henchmen had been plotting their escape for months, complete with fraudulent paperwork, fake names, hidden cash, and possible escape routes.
Rescuing themselves meant remaking themselves, erasing their pasts as persecutors and inventing new futures for themselves as supposed refugees. They would no longer be Nazis; they would become the victims. The more brazen among them might even pose as anti-Nazis. Otto von Bolschwing had been an influential aide in the Nazi Security Service's "Jewish Affairs" office before the war, but by 1945 he realized the days of the Third Reich were numbered. By war's end he was reworking his biography — claiming to be an opponent of Hitler who had tried to assassinate him — and volunteering himself as an informant to American military officials in Germany. His work was so well regarded that he was able to collect letters of reference from the U.S. Army praising him for the intelligence he provided on his former Nazi partners; within a few years, the CIA would take him on as a spy of its own, cleanse his Nazi record, and relocate him to America to begin a lucrative career in the export business. His Nazi past was long forgotten.
Many of the self-styled refugees cast themselves as apolitical, men without a state whose lives had been torn apart by someone else's bloody war. When Dmytro Sawchuk got a visa to come to America in 1951 as a refugee and start a new life in the Catskills, he told U.S. immigration officials that he had been a common farmer and woodcutter in Poland during the war. In fact, he had been an armed guard at three Nazi concentration camps, lording over prisoners who were forced to burn the corpses of fellow Jews, and he had taken part in a mass murder at a Jewish ghetto in Poland. It would be nearly four decades before his lies were revealed.
And Tom Soobzokov? The Führer of the North Caucasus, as some of his fellow countrymen called him, was reinventing himself as well. He was still wearing his Waffen SS officer's uniform when the Brits arrested him in Austria at the end of the war. But Soobzokov escaped from a truck full of Nazi prisoners and began a postwar journey that would take him from a DP camp in Italy to a refugee enclave in the Middle East and finally to a new life in Paterson, New Jersey.
In his official records, Soobzokov now listed himself as an ex–prisoner of war forced into hard labor by the Nazis. "Refugee + forced laborer," a relief aide scrawled after interviewing him in 1946 at the Italian DP camp. "Asks for help to emigrate ... and help him financially," his file noted.
He, too, was now a victim.
Italy would prove a popular transit point for thousands of Nazis looking to make their escape from Europe — not just because of its easy access to the sea, but because of its politics. Italy, of course, had been one of Germany's original Axis partners under its fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, and even after its surrender to the Allies in 1943, large pockets of the country remained in the stranglehold of the Nazis for the rest of the war. German was still the dominant language in some regions of northern Italy. Indeed, even after Hitler's defeat, it was tough to tell who was running some regions. "Did We Beat the Nazis or Not?" a headline in Stars and Stripes, the American military newspaper, asked days after the surrender, as uniformed SS officers were still roaming freely and running operations in the Tyrol region. With the Germans still in control, Nazi fugitives were able to navigate the area almost at will and make their escape out to sea and to points beyond.
They had help — from two of the most powerful institutions in the region. The Vatican and the Red Cross were each complicit in helping the fleeing Nazis gain shelter, travel documents, and escape routes from Italy, years of documentation would show. The Italian "rat line," as the escape route became known, was no secret to the United States. In 1947, two years after the war, a secret cable on the Nazis' flight from a State Department official based in Italy called the Vatican "the largest single organization involved in the illegal movement of emigrants," and concluded that church leaders had helped "former Nazis and former Fascists" to flee Europe for South America and elsewhere "so long as they are anti-Communist."
One Catholic bishop, a longtime anti-Semite named Alois Hudal, was so sympathetic to the Nazis, and so prolific in shepherding them to safety, that he became known as the Brown Bishop, an ode to the color of the Nazi uniforms. Church leaders like Hudal wanted not only to thwart the godless Communists, but also to expand their religious base — the "propagation of the faith," as the State Department cable put it. If expanding the faith meant protecting Nazis, so be it. "It is the Vatican's desire to assist any person, regardless of nationality or political beliefs as long as that person can prove himself a Catholic," the memo said. "This of course from the practical point of view is a dangerous practice."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Nazis Next Door"
Copyright © 2014 Eric Lichtblau.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: A Name from the Past xi
1 Liberation 1
2 The Good Nazis 14
3 "Minor War Crimes" 41
4 Echoes from Argentina 66
5 Tilting at Swastikas 77
6 In the Pursuit of Science 90
7 Out of the Shadows 106
8 "An Ugly Blot" 125
9 The Sins of the Father 136
10 A Good Party Spoiled 152
11 "An Innocent Man" 170
12 Backlash 181
13 Ivan the Terrible 199
14 The Road to Ponary 213
Map: Locations of Nazis Pursued by the Office of Special Investigations 232
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a must read book and should be made into a Movie! I had no idea that the men I had heard about in our History books were Nazi's or were harboring and protecting Nazi's. It was a dark period in American history which should be uncovered. The truth needs to be told and this is the book that does it. You will be shocked.
The book does a great job of revealing the disgraceful truth of how many Nazis made it into The U.S. after the war but the author clearly has bias against the govt and the further in the book you get the more it feels like an anti-gov pro conspiracy book. The author take on the OSI leaves me wondering if justice was served or if special interest groups controlled this powerful arm of the DOJ. Several facts about the OSI seems to have been left out or at least downplayed. I am not saying it's a horrible book or that it's not worth your time but it feels like one of the most bias, least forth right books I have read in a while.