The oldest Nazi suspect to be identified in the U.S. was arrested from his Philadelphia home Tuesday, charged with assisting in the gassing of more than 216,000 Jews taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.
Johann Breyer, 89, faces possible extradition in Germany for his alleged crimes as a member of the SS “Death’s Head” battalion after a court hearing Wednesday, The New York Times reported.
Members of the battalion were responsible for gassing prisoners determined inadequate for work at the camp and for burning the bodies in large crematories. Germany has charged the suspect with 158 counts of aiding and abetting murder, each one representing a trainload taken to the camp during his time there, said the paper.
The hearing revived a long-standing case that began two decades ago but has gained momentum with new evidence and German efforts. In the past, Germany refused to take back Nazis found in the United U.S. for trial, but its stance seems to have changed with the request for Breyer’s return.
Breyer admitted to American authorities that he had worked as a guard at the camp, but his lawyer, Dennis Boyle, claims “he was absolutely not one of the guards” in the extermination area and that he did not voluntarily sign up for the battalion, reported the Times.
The current complaint asserts that he told authorities in the 1990s that he was a perimeter guard and that he knew that people were being cremated but was unaware of how they died, reported CNN.
But recently discovered documents show that the immigrant, who gained U.S. citizenship in 1952 after claiming that his mother was born in the country, volunteered for the SS at age 17.
The complaint also asserts that he was granted leave twice, which only occurred when the Nazis complied with all job assignments, including duties in the extermination area, CNN said.
The case has flooded social media with controversy over whether the elderly man should pay for a crime committed so long ago. His health has added an additional factor; his lawyer claims that he is suffering early signs of dementia among other health issues.
“The fact that this guy got away with what he did for so long doesn’t mean that he should continue to get away with it. These are unparalleled crimes that have no statute of limitations,” Neal Sher, former director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, told the Times. The OSI was the department's Nazi prosecution unit.
Since authorities began searching for Nazis living in the U.S. 35 years ago, they have charged more than 130 suspects, said the Times.
As a married man in a blue-collar neighborhood, Breyer’s current life shows no proof of his dark past. Some neighbors were unaware of the retired toolmaker’s former charges.