He buttoned his sweater, straightened his cuffs, took a gulp of bottled water, glanced around the courtroom and began to explain why, after 46 years in the United States, he should not lose his citizenship. “I didn’t do anything to anybody,” Jack Reimer said.
After a series of prosecution witnesses recounted horrors perpetrated by “the Ukrainians” in the SS during the Holocaust, Ukrainian-born Reimer — defendant in United States of America v. Jack Reimer and chief witness for the defense — took the witness stand in Manhattan federal court last week to declare his innocence near the end of his three-week denaturalization trial.
A prisoner of war who became a noncommissioned SS officer, he answered the U.S. government charge that he had participated in the liquidation of three Jewish ghettos in Poland, had taken part in a mass killing at a ravine near his training base 20 miles from Lublin, and had misrepresented his past when he immigrated to the U.S. in 1952.
“I wish they wouldn’t call me a Nazi,” Reimer said. “I’m not. I never had anything to do with the persecution of Jewish people. I never saw a ghetto or set foot in a ghetto.”
“I never concealed anything,” he added. “I have never hidden anything. I tell the truth.”
Reimer’s assertions continued this week under the cross-examination of Edward Stutman, senior trial attorney of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI).
Stutman struck at Reimer’s credibility, pointing out inconsistencies in the defendant’s prior statements about such topics as his memories about the mass killings at the ravine in the winter of 1941-42, his duties in Warsaw during the ghetto’s 1943 liquidation, his role in accepting German naturalization in 1944, and his application for U.S. citizenship.
“I don’t remember everything,” Reimer, 79, said. “Mr. Stutman, when you’re my age, you don’t even remember what you had for breakfast.”
The case was tried before Judge Lawrence McKenna of the Southern District of the New York Federal Court, who will issue his verdict after reading post-trial legal motions filed by both sides, a process that may last several months.
If the government wins the case and subsequent appeals, OSI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service will initiate a separate deportation case against Reimer in U.S. Immigration Court.
For his first day of testimony Reimer chose a knit tie and striped shirt, a contrast to the plain long-sleeve white shirt he had worn — tieless and buttoned at the collar — while sitting at the defense table during the trial’s earlier sessions. His testimony drew a capacity crowd of spectators, many of them Holocaust survivors, and of reporters, who packed the empty jury box.
He blinked nervously while speaking, taking occasional swallows from the plastic water bottle he kept at his side. Usually composed, sometimes teary, he spoke with a slight accent, in nearly flawless English, often quoting from the New Testament and straying from the attorneys’ questions. His asides prompted a scolding from his lawyer, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark: “We’re supposed to do this by question and answer.”
In his responses to Clark and Stutman, Reimer painted himself as a distant man, who — born into a Mennonite family in a small Ukrainian village — was separated from the church for some 50 years and made minimal effort after the war to determine his exiled family’s fate.
In describing his service in the Soviet Army (“I had sworn an oath to the Russian Army. The Germans were the enemy.”), his capture by the Germans (“We were just prisoners of war.”), his record at the Trawniki training base (“I was only a translator.”) and his subsequent actions during the war, Reimer offered an account that reinforced the claims he had made in earlier interviews and court papers, but which significantly differed in several details.
Because of his fluency in German and Russian he worked strictly as an interpreter and clerk at the SS base, he said — he didn’t receive firearms from the Germans; didn’t serve like his fellow ethnic-German POWs as a guard at a concentration camp; didn’t know about the Nazis’ Final Solution.
“The only thing I knew,” he said, were “rumors — the Jewish people are being relocated to the east. That’s all I knew. We didn’t know anything about extermination camps.”
“I never shot anybody,” he said, contradicting his statement in a 1992 OSI interrogation that he had fired a shot toward a wounded Jewish labor camp inmate after the killings at the ravine.
OSI claims you confessed your guilt in 1992 — did you? Clark asked Reimer.
“Yeah, they claim that.”
“Have you ever said you shot somebody in the past?”
“You lie!” shouted a middle-aged woman sitting in the first row of the spectators’ section.
The beginning of his testimony marked a change in the courtroom demeanor. After Clark finished questioning his client, the same middle-aged woman stood and shouted at Reimer, “You should get the electric chair. You should be hanged alive.” In April 1943, most of her family died in the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, screamed the woman, who declined to give her name. Reimer served there — as a clerk, he said.
“You’re a murderer, Jack, and you know it,” yelled a young man wearing a kipa in the back of the courtroom.
Reimer, carrying an armful of bound legal files from the witness stand, did not look up.
Earlier, Reimer and Clark, who walked the courthouse halls unescorted by police, had shared the elevator with Jewish spectators and eaten lunch in the cafeteria across from them, with no confrontations resulting.
“I know nobody in this room will believe it,” Reimer said near the end of his examination by Clark, “but most of my friends are Jewish.”
That comment brought muffled groans from the spectators.
The Manhattan trial, the first such denaturalization case tried here, was sandwiched in McKenna’s courtroom between hearings for cases involving boxing promoter Don King, and Chinese drug dealers, and other more mundane matters. Its novelty, though, failed to capture the interest of the city. The attendees never totaled more than several dozen people — this, in a city New York’s size, with the country’s largest Jewish population and the largest community of Holocaust survivors.
Newspaper coverage never made the front page.Besides flyers distributed outside the courtroom by the militant Jewish Defense Organization and Jewish Defense Group, there were no organized rallies or protests at the courthouse in Lower Manhattan.
And New York’s ethnic communities hardly paid attention to the case.
“There’s no interest in our community,” said Askold Lozynskyj, president of the Ukrainian Congress of America. Reimer’s family was Volksdeutsch, ethnic-German. “He’s a German who happened to live in Ukraine. He has never identified himself as a Ukrainian. He’s not considered Ukrainian by any stretch of the imagination.”
A onetime restaurant manager and snack distributor in Brooklyn, Reimer has lived for the last 40 years in Lake Carmel, a largely Irish and Italian town in upstate Putnam County.
Members of the local Ukrainian-American community find media descriptions of Reimer as Ukrainian objectionable, Lozynskyj said. “We feel there is an anti-Ukrainian bias in the media.”
Past denaturalization trials in other cities inflamed relations between Jews and the defendants’ ethnic groups — especially in the case of John Demjanjuk, the Cleveland resident accused of having been the infamous “Ivan the Terrible” SS guard at Treblinka. A fellow trainee at Trawniki, Demjanjuk was also born in the Ukraine and was an active member of Cleveland’s Ukrainian community.
The Reimer trial has received no coverage so far in New York’s weekly German-language newspaper, and has aroused little apparent interest in the German-American community.
“It sort of does surprise me,” said Heidi Folbergh, editor of the New York Staats-Zeitung paper. Reimer, while identified as an ethnic-German, has not been an active — or known — member of the local community, she said.
No members of Reimer’s family attended the trial. He said he advised his wife not to come. “I told her what I’m going through every day — that she should stay away.”
At the end of Tuesday’s cross-examination by Stutman, Reimer developed a slight cough. The OSI attorney offered Reimer a cup of water and a cough drop.
“Do you wish to call it a day?” Stutman asked.
Reimer said he wanted to keep talking. “I wish,” he said, “you would finish the subject already.”