NEW YORK, July 30 (JTA) — A U.S. judge has revoked the citizenship of a 76-year-old suburban Philadelphia man accused of serving as a concentration camp guard during World War II.
The most damaging evidence against Theodor Szehinskyj, a retired machinist, came from six World War II documents released after the collapse of the Soviet Union and from the videotaped testimony of the wife of the owner of a farm where Szehinskyj worked in the early 1940s.
Szehinskyj claimed he worked at now-88 year-old Hildegard Lechner’s farm until November 1944. But Lechner, whose husband was a Nazi soldier, recalls that he left in the fall of 1942.
Lechner’s date corresponds with the wartime documents, which show Szehinskyj working as a concentration camp guard from 1943 to 1945.
Szehinskyj’s lawyer questioned Lechner’s testimony.
Lechner supported the Nazis and was “given slave laborers to work her farm for the betterment of the Third Reich. I don’t see any difference between her relationship with Mr. Szehinskyj and a slave owner in the Deep South before the Civil War,” said Andre Michniak, Szehinskyj’s lawyer.
“Most people in this country question a slaveowner in the South when they say something in conflict with a runaway slave.”
It is unclear whether Szehinskyj actually ran away from the farm or left on his own accord.
“You need something more than just paper that says someone was somewhere,” said Michniak, suggesting that Szehinskyj’s identification might have been used without his knowledge.
The documents, however, include Szehinskyj’s date of birth, religion, mother’s name and address, and physical description.
The Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, which began the investigation against Szehinskyj, remains firm on the man’s wartime activities.
“This decision is proof that the cries for justice of the surviving victims from this terrible period in human history are still heard,” said Eli Rosenbaum, director of the OSI.
“Szehinskyj and other SS Death’s Head guards were integral parts of the Nazi system of degradation, brutality and murder.”
Szehinskyj is accused of serving at concentration camps that include Gross-Rosen in Poland and Sachsenhausen in Germany.
Szehinskyj, who was born in what is now Ukraine, entered the United States in 1950, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1958.
There is no record that Szehinskyj directly harmed anyone, but Judge Steward Dalzell wrote in his July 24 ruling that concentration camp guards received new assignments daily “and none could plausibly contend that he spent the war merely watching from the edge.
“The heavy presumption from this incontrovertible historical record is that guards were, at a minimum, complicit in this closed culture of murder even if there may not be hard evidence of actual homicide at a particular guard’s hands.”
Michniak said that Szehinskyj learned of the investigation in late 1996 through a letter asking him to appear for a sworn interview. Michniak said that Szehinskyj’s compliance with authorities adds credibility to his denial of the charges.
“Most people would get a lawyer, but [Szehinskyj] just walked right in there,” Michniak said. “This is someone who did not try to hide in any way.”
Szehinskyj plans to appeal the ruling. Deportation proceedings have not yet begun.
Rosenbaum, who estimates his office is currently investigating 250 suspected Nazis, maintains that Szehinskyj is “one of the people who did the dirty work of the Nazis.”
“This is a major victory for the government in Nazi cases,” he said.