This Wednesday, January 27, was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Although the community generally marks the immense horror and evil of the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah, this year set to start the evening of April 7, many members of the community are thinking of it now too. Here, therefore, is one preview of a book discussion and two personal remembrances of the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Part of Debbie Cenziper’s book, “Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America,” reads like a dystopian novel, so violent that it had to be self-published, so dark that as you read it you have to strain to see the words, so upsetting that you have to turn away and remember to breathe.
That’s a fairly small part of her book, though. Much more of it is about the search to find justice — belated justice, perhaps impotent justice, but justice nonetheless — for the victims.
Ms. Cenziper is going to talk about her book, on Zoom, for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on February 4 at 11 p.m. (See below.)
It’s the story of the specialized killing force that trained in Poland and roamed through Eastern Europe. Even more brutal than the SS, it was a group of men whose monstrous cruelty combined with their mundane need for promotions and paid vacations and job security. Those men — “the 5,000 or so, including former Soviet soldiers and civilians,” Ms. Cenziper said, became the force that enabled the Nazis to kill 1.7 million Jews in 20 months.
The story of the Trawniki men, as they were called, still is little known; much of it was hidden in various archives behind the Iron Curtain until it fell in 1989. Many of them escaped to America, lying to immigrations officials on their way, and then living their free lives as if they were not monsters but ordinary people. The book is the story of how some of them were found, and how, after decades, some justice was done.
Other parts of “Citizen 865” remind the reader of one of the most striking images from the early Trump administration — this is not in any way a story about the Trump administration, but the analogy is hard to shake— when one of the White House records analysts talked about his job taping papers together. Mr. Trump was in the habit of ripping official documents into little bits once he had finished with them, a habit he was said to have brought with him from his business life. Because those official documents had to be preserved, staffers had to assemble the jigsaw-puzzle-like mess of fragments and then tape them together.
Historians often do such work, particularly when they work with primary sources, and even more so when they are the first to try to assemble a coherent whole out of far-flung, often elusive bits of information.
The stakes for the historians in Ms. Cenziper’s book were higher than they are for most historians; they were pursuing history not just for intellectual curiosity or academic advancement, but for justice. They were the historians who joined the lawyers in the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations as they hunted the Nazis who found safe haven in the United States. Many of those Nazis, it turns out, were Trawniki men.
Ms. Cenziper is an investigative journalist who lives in Maryland and works for the Washington Post — her most recent work looks at nursing homes during the pandemic — and she’s also an associate professor and director of investigative reporting at the Medill School of Journalism, part of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. She was drawn to write this book “because after years of learning about the Holocaust in Hebrew school, and after studying the Holocaust in college, I had never heard of the Trawniki men.”
She first learned about them at a New Year’s Eve party, when she started talking to a woman who worked in the OSI; she had known vaguely about the OSI but knew no specifics and was surprised and intrigued by what she heard.
The members of the OSI often are called Nazi hunters, but they don’t like that term, Ms. Cenziper said. “They’re not after revenge or retribution. They’re working toward justice.” Some of the agents are Jewish, some are not; many, possibly most, probably most, are haunted by what they’ve read and heard and seen, but they were impelled toward justice. (This is pretty much in the past tense now; most of the criminals have died, and in recognition of that truth, the office was folded into the Justice Department’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section.)
The Citizen 865 in her book’s title was Jakob Reimer, an ethnic German Ukrainian who had been planning to become a librarian when he was taken into the Soviet army. Then the Nazis captured him. Reimer was fluent in German, and he also, as his later life made clear, was smart and gifted at self-preservation. He was recruited to the school at Trawniki for his language skills; when he applied to immigrate to the United States, he said that he’d worked in an office at the school. He made a life for himself in the metropolitan area, got married, and had children. His jobs included selling Wise potato chips and running a restaurant; and he retired to live by a lake in upstate New York. Later, OSI historians learned that he’d been at many of the places where Jews were massacred. They took deposition after deposition from him, eventually taking him and the various lies he’d told under oath to court. Ultimately, this charming, courtly, tidy, innocent-seeming old man was found guilty of monstrous crimes; he was ordered deported but died — in Fort Lee — before that happened.
John Demjanjuk was perhaps the most well-known of the Trawniki men, although he was accused, convicted, and then exonerated as being Ivan the Terrible, a concentration camp guard. Later, records revealed that as bad as he’d been thought to have been, in fact he was even worse. He was stripped of his American citizenship and deported to Germany, where he died.
These war criminals “lived normal lives,” Ms. Cenziper said. “One was a Crackerjack salesman. One owned motels. They looked like ordinary American citizens. That’s why it often was difficult for the OSI lawyers to convince American judges to strip them of their citizenship.
“Look at Jacob Reimer. He was a devout Catholic and went to church every week.”
But Ms. Cenziper doesn’t write only about darkness. She follows two Polish Jews, 19-year-old Feliks Wojcik and 16-year-old Lucyna Stryjewska, as they live through horror, including the Trawniki men, and lose everything except each other. She tells the story unsparingly. (Or at least it seems unsparing. It’s hard to imagine worse, but then those of us who have not lived through hell cannot imagine it.) Somehow, though, these two survive, together, get married in the Warsaw ghetto and escape its destruction, and they get to America, where they make a new life. “They had two kids and eight grandchildren, and they had a beautiful life,” Ms. Cenziper said. He was a pediatrician, who had started medical school in Poland but eventually became a doctor at the University of Rochester; she had tried medical school but had seen so much blood that she could take no more. “They took cruises, they vacationed in Acapulco, but in the middle of the night Feliks turned to Lucyna and said, ‘I can’t remember the sound of my sister’s voice.’ There always was a lingering sense of pain. The only person who could remember his sister’s voice was Lucyna.
“She died only six months after he did, on what would have been their 75th wedding anniversary.
“I cry every time I tell their story,” Ms. Cenziper said. “I have told the story at least 20 times, and every time I tear up.” She never got to meet the Wojciks, but she did come to know their children and grandchildren. Although “I’m not the kind of person who reads horoscopes, or anything like that, I do feel that I was meant to tell their incredible survival story.”
In the end, she said, “I wrote this book because I had spent so many years as an investigative reporter writing about people who do bad things — stealing, lying, taking money from the poor. I saw this book as a story about justice, about historians and lawyers and others who want to do the right thing.
“I find it inspiring as a journalist and as a human being to focus on people who want to do the right thing.”
Who: Investigative reporter Debbie Cenziper
What: Will talk about her new book, “Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America.” Virtual event – link will be provided.
When: On Thursday, February 4, at 11 a.m.
For whom: JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly
How much: $10 for JCC members, $12 for everyone else
How to learn more or register: Email Kathy Graff at email@example.com or call Esther Mazor at (201) 408-1456.