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Trial of admitted Nazi hinges on veracity of witness memory

NEW YORK, Aug. 17 (JTA) — Is Jakob Reimer a perpetrator of horrors against Polish Jews during the Holocaust or is he a victim of time and place, a former prisoner of war who suffered at the hands of Nazis? In the first Nazi trial ever held in Manhattan, the U.S. government has sought to strip Reimer of his U.S. citizenship as a preliminary step toward deporting him because he allegedly lied on his application to enter the United States in 1952. Judge Lawrence McKenna’s verdict in the trial, which was expected to conclude this week, is not expected for several months. Prosecutors said during the trial that he would have been denied admission to the United States if he had admitted then, as he did in 1992, that he had murdered a Jew in a Nazi camp and that he was part of a unit that was responsible for some of the worst wartime atrocities in Poland. While the trial in Federal District Court is, officially, a technical proceeding related only to Reimer’s citizenship, the testimony offered by a historian, several Holocaust survivors and Reimer himself have presented a dramatic re-creation of history. A core issue in Reimer’s trial has been memory. According to his attorney, Ramsey Clark, the memories of Reimer and the survivors who testified against him are unreliable. “With all these trials we’re seeing testimony entered from the 1940s, the ’60s and the ’80s. It varies tremendously,” Clark said in a brief interview with JTA outside the courtroom. “It’s basically a product of human memory.” As a result the truth is impossible to establish, Clark, a former U.S. attorney general, said in his opening argument. Survivors who testified spoke of the cruelty they had witnessed at several ghettos in Poland, but none could identify Reimer. Reimer’s memory held clear recollections of the rose bushes outside the houses in the small village where he grew up in Ukraine, and of his stopping to buy vodka on the way to joining his regiment as an officer in the Soviet army when World War II broke out. He was one of some 2,500 Ukrainian prisoners held by the Germans that were made auxiliary S.S. troops at the Trawniki training camp near Lublin in eastern Poland. He fondly remembered dinners with his girlfriend’s parents while his unit was stationed in the Polish town of Czestochowa beginning in September 1942. But while in Czestochowa, Lublin and Warsaw, Reimer testified, he knew nothing of the persecutions by Trawniki men in those cities’ ghettos. “I have no recollection of screams,” Reimer said while being questioned by his attorney. “I never saw the ghettoes. I never saw anyone shot or pushed around. I never have seen any cruelties in Czestochowa or anyplace else.” Approximately 50,000 Jews were confined in Czestochowa’s ghetto and, with the assistance of Trawniki men, most were sent to their deaths at Treblinka during a less-than-two-week period in the fall of 1942. While Reimer maintained that he mainly served as an office administrator in charge of distributing payroll to the Ukrainians, the prosecution’s main witness said it would have been impossible for Reimer to have remained unaware of the murders. “As soon as the death camps were up and running, Sobibor in May 1942 and Treblinka in July 1942, Trawniki men brought back takes of what they saw there,” said Charles Sydnor, a historian specializing in the Nazi era. Memory propelled many of the several dozen spectators to the grand cherry- wood and bronze-decorated courtroom each day. Many were elderly. Some were survivors themselves of Nazi persecution. Some, like Bernie Alexander, were young. The 29-year-old middle-school guidance counselor, who wears a black kipah and lives in Queens, was the only spectator who attended the trial every day. “I felt it was important to go to show that even people of my generation are not forgetting,” he said in an interview in the courthouse cafeteria, as Reimer and Clark ate their lunch just two tables away. For the prosecution too, the core issue has been memory — and the importance of not forgetting that within the vastness of the murder of 6 million Jews lie the specific criminal acts that made it possible. The U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations has tried 107 Nazis and their collaborators — stripping 59 of their citizenship — since its creation in 1979. The current memory of defendants is important but the Nazi- hunting unit does not rely on it alone. OSI’s 10 attorneys and seven staff historians piece together history as they work. It is put into place one document at a time as papers are culled from the depths of archives in the former Soviet Union and Germany, and from testimony in other Nazis’ trials in the United States and those countries over the last 35 years. They also travel great distances to add additional small pieces to the mosaic. In Reimer’s case, the lead prosecutor, Edward Stutman, and an OSI historian journeyed to the Ural Mountains to interview another former Trawniki guard who, in a 1964 Soviet war crimes trial, testified that Reimer had led his troop on a killing mission near Lublin in which 250 Jews died. In his ordinariness — then, as a handsome man in his 20s and now, as a somewhat wizened man of 79, whose thick brown hair has turned white — Reimer and his story are remarkable. As an ethnic German, born to German parents and raised speaking German alone, his ability to translate between Russian and German made him valuable to the Trawniki guards. Reimer was promoted to the highest rank that a Ukranian could achieve, Sydnor testified. The Nazis also rewarded him with two medals, one for bravery, which was not often done for Trawniki men, he said. By his own admission, Reimer trained a company of Ukranian recruits, teaching them basic German military commands. But the prosecution said he also taught them how to shoot. In a sworn interview with OSI officials in May 1992 Reimer admitted shooting a Jewish man in the winter of 1941-1942. The man was nearly buried by 40 to 60 corpses in a pit just outside the Trawniki training camp, near Lublin. In that interview, Reimer said he had overslept that day. When he came late to it, he saw the man pointing to his head, and, at close range, “finished him off.” In a 1997 deposition Reimer said he had shot over the pit of dead bodies in order not to hit anyone. But on the stand last week, his recollection seemed to shift once again. “I don’t know why it comes into my head that somebody moved or pointed to his head. It’s possible” that someone did, Reimer testified.