German law that eases war-crimes prosecutions reverberates in Northeast Philadelphia

Johann "Hans" Breyer has lived on this block in Northeast Philadelphia for more than 30 years.
Johann "Hans" Breyer has lived on this block in Northeast Philadelphia for more than 30 years. (MATT ROURKE / Associated Press)
Posted: October 03, 2012

The note is on a small, yellow piece of paper, written out in thin letters, all capitals. It is pinned to the door of the modest rowhouse in Northeast Philadelphia, where enough visitors have come in recent days to warrant a pointed warning:

"WE DO NOT HAVE ANY COMMENT," it reads. "PLEASE LEAVE."

The resident, a retired toolmaker named Johann "Hans" Breyer, has lived on this well-kept block for 3 1/2 decades, according to property records. His past, as a guard at Auschwitz during World War II, again came back to haunt him last month when authorities in Germany announced that he is under investigation.

The news out of Germany came nearly a decade after a federal court ruled that he could remain in the United States, concluding a U.S. Department of Justice inquiry that had begun in the early 1990s. Breyer has long argued that his job as a guard was limited to the work camp and did not involve the infamous death chambers.

His new legal predicament is a result of a significant development in Germany, where authorities are now pursuing people who previously had escaped prosecution. Like Breyer, those now in the sights of the German legal system have never been tied to specific crimes.

The change began with the prosecution of John Demjanjuk, who served as a guard at the notorious Sobibor death camp in Poland and was convicted by a court in Munich in May 2011. Demjanjuk, who lived in the United States for years and died before his legal options were exhausted, was charged as an accessory to murder in more than 28,000 cases and is now the model for prosecuting former prison guards.

"The case of Johann Breyer isn't the only one," said Kurt Schrimm, head of a special German office in Ludwigsburg that investigates Nazi war crimes. He would not say how many cases like Breyer's are under review, but he did say prosecutors were working them aggressively. Given the guards' advanced ages - Breyer is 87 - time is not on their side.

Schrimm said the new prosecutions are possible because investigators have a better sense of how the camps operated. "People could get away by saying they had only been outside of the camp or working in the kitchen," he said. "But today, we know that all of these guards had been rotating jobs, so that everybody had been stationed at the gas chambers at times."

Schrimm and his colleagues gather, screen, and classify material about Nazi war crimes. The goal is to find evidence against individuals and turn the material over to prosecutors. He would not describe the evidence against Breyer, but the referral shows that the case cleared an important hurdle.

The investigations are difficult for a variety of reasons, he said. "You have to take into account that many of those who were convicted of crimes are already dead," he said, which means corroborating information is hard. "And with the new legal situation, we can only go against those whose cases haven't been to court already because nobody can be persecuted twice for the same crime."

Breyer's history is not news to some of his neighbors on Woodbridge Road, several of whom expressed support for him. The woman who lives next door, a Polish immigrant who moved to the United States 15 years ago, said her family had suffered under the Nazis. Yet she had nothing but sympathy for her elderly neighbor.

"Breyer told me his story right when I moved here," said the woman, who gave her name only as Eva. "He told me he didn't do anything bad to anybody there. And I believe him."

"That man is a wonderful person, a great neighbor who has always been willing to help whenever he could," she said.

Another neighbor, Michael Fritz, was not familiar with Breyer but had seen the recent news reports. He expressed a sentiment also heard during Demjanjuk's long history in the spotlight: Why prosecute an old man?

"Who even knows if he would still live to the end of a trial?" Fritz asked.

The chief Nazi hunter with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Efraim Zuroff, could not agree less. "Old age should not protect people who committed such heinous crimes," Zuroff, addressing Breyer's case, said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Breyer was not deported after the Justice Department investigation in great part because he joined the Waffen SS when he was still a minor. But for German authorities now, that alone is not enough.

Thomas Walther, a former investigator in Schrimm's office, said Breyer's age at the time does not absolve him of anything he did. It will be weighed by investigators, he said, but so, too, will be any evidence that emerges.

Walther, who investigated Demjanjuk, is now representing a woman who lost her two siblings in Auschwitz during the time Breyer allegedly served as a guard. His work has put him in touch with about 200 people who lost family members in the camps, and while most of them are not pressing for long imprisonment, many are insisting on justice. "They still want and need judges to point out responsibilities," he said.

Exactly when Breyer was at the camp, and for how long, is unclear. The German newspaper Berliner Zeitung reported last week that Breyer was assigned to the camp at least as of December 1943. The Associated Press said Breyer joined the Waffen SS in 1942, when he was 17, and was called up for duty in 1943.

To Walther, the fact that prison guards like Breyer were present and by definition keeping people in the camp leaves them exposed. "If somebody runs amok in your office and starts to kill everybody, and the man at the front door deliberately stops you from leaving the building, then of course that person is guilty, too," said Walther, "That's exactly what accessory to murder is about."

Several efforts to reach Breyer were unsuccessful, and calls to relatives were not returned.

His defense in the past has been consistent. He has argued that he did not serve in the part of the camp where the extermination of Jews took place. The Associated Press interviewed him recently, and he repeated his assertion.

Schrimm's investigation has been referred to prosecutors in the Bavarian town of Weiden, who will now decide whether to bring charges.

Weiden, a town of about 40,000, is believed to be where Breyer last lived in Germany. The prosecutor's office is small, and it is unclear how long it will take for the case to move forward. "We don't have any experience with cases like that, and we need to figure out if evidence is sufficient to get a conviction in court," Gerd Schaefer, the prosecutor, told the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung.

Walther urged authorities to expedite the proceedings against Breyer and criticized these investigations in general, saying there were others out there who needed to be held accountable.

"Everybody just keeps thinking: 'Do I really know what my grandfather has been doing during World War II?' " Walther said. "That's the wrong attitude. There has to be some justice in the end."

It is not a view shared by Eva. "My neighbor is a good man," she said. "Doesn't an 87-year-old who has lived such a decent life here, for decades, deserve some peace?"


Contact Tobias Peter at tobiaspeter@gmx.net.

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