Holocaust survivors attend opening of ex-Nazis trial

NEW YORK — It was clear that Jakob Reimer would have preferred to be somewhere else.

Reimer, the first former Nazi to face a denaturalization proceeding in a Manhattan Federal District Court, spent most of the first day of his trial picking at his fingernails and at the blue cardigan sweater he wore over a white shirt buttoned to the neck.

The Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, its Nazi hunting unit, is seeking to strip Reimer of his U.S. citizenship because, it charges, he lied about his wartime killing of Jews in Poland when he applied for a U.S. visa in 1952.

The trial, which opened Monday, is expected to last about two weeks. If Judge Lawrence McKenna rules in favor of denaturalization, then the Justice Department will initiate legal action to deport Reimer.

Several Holocaust survivors, some wearing replicas of the yellow stars they were forced to wear by the Nazis to identify them as Jews, were among the many observers who packed the federal courtroom.

"We are here because we are interested to see who killed our people," said Fira Stukelman, a board member of the Association of Holocaust Survivors From the Former Soviet Union, who said her parents were murdered by the Germans.

Zhanna Berina, a vice president of the survivors group, said, "We're not young, but we have the task to tell what happened" in Eastern Europe during the war that "people don't really know about."

The trial also has attracted younger observers, among them 19-year-old Ahuvah Weinberger, who recently returned from a tour of destroyed Jewish towns and of concentration and death camps in Poland.

"After seeing the destruction, it seemed important to come to show that we still care," said Weinberger.

Prosecutors have charged that Reimer, now 79 and frail, did not state on his visa application that he had been in the Polish cities of Lublin, Czestochowa or Warsaw. Each of those cities had a Jewish ghetto that prosecutors say Reimer had a hand in "liquidating."

Reimer "misrepresented and concealed the most essential information about his wartime conduct in order to gain admission to the U.S.," Edward Stutman, the lead prosecutor, said in his opening argument.

"The defendant led many actions against Jews, and took part in the very first liquidation of a ghetto, in March 1942, when 26,000 Jews were deported from Lublin." Just over a year later, in April 1943, Reimer and the Trawniki squad, a Nazi SS unit, "led the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto."

Reimer has admitted that he was a member of the Trawniki squad, but denies that he was directly involved in the mass murder of Jews.

In his opening argument, defense attorney Ramsey Clark provided an outline of Reimer's life story. He gave extensive detail about the Mennonite faith, which was strong in the Ukrainian town where Reimer was born to German parents in 1918.

Reimer served in the Soviet army, was taken a prisoner of war by the Germans, and then was hand-picked to be a member of the Trawniki squad because he spoke German, said Clark.

In a sworn statement to OSI investigators made in 1992, Reimer said that he had shot dead the only living man who was nearly buried in a pit of more than 50 corpses just outside of Trawniki. Reimer did not have a lawyer present at that interview.

But last year, Reimer retracted that statement, saying instead that he had fired over the pit after he was ordered to shoot by his Nazi superior.

"Saying he changed the trajectory of his bullet does not diminish his role," said Stutman. "He was armed and in command, and that makes him part of the system of persecution."