The defendant swept into the federal courtroom wearing a cleric’s cassock that brushed the floor. His hair was white and his face was round, fixed with a thick right eyebrow that lurched upward, as if he held a great secret.
Some men blamed for inciting the murders of hundreds of Jews might have appeared indignant, but the 68-year-old Romanian Orthodox archbishop remained still and inscrutable as he sat between three defense attorneys in the federal building that stretched across a full city block in downtown Detroit.
From behind the prosecutor’s table, Peter Black studied the man he had come to know only through what history had left behind: a trail of clues, decades old and long forgotten, scattered across two continents.
Finally, the Office of Special Investigations had turned to Black to play a major role in what would become one of its most infamous cases. For most of 1981, Black had retraced the steps of Archbishop Valerian Trifa from more than 40 years earlier, when he had been a prominent leader of the Romanian Iron Guard, a violent, fascist, and antisemitic movement whose members greeted each other with the Roman salute—arms extended and palms down.
As editor of an Iron Guard newspaper, Trifa in January 1941 had printed a call to arms against the regime of Romanian military dictator Ion Antonescu, whom the Iron Guard believed was moving too slowly against so-called enemies of the state.
A group of Jews and Jew-lovers are ruling everything.
In the streets, Jews were stabbed, beaten, shot, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. In a Bucharest slaughterhouse, they were murdered in a fashion intended to mock kosher butchering techniques, then left to hang on meat hooks. Others were assembled before a burning synagogue and forced to dance to the sound of gunfire. Afterward, Trifa fled to the Reich to avoid capture by Romanian authorities, who tried him in absentia and sentenced him to life in prison.
He had spent four years as a guest of Reich authorities before fleeing to Vienna and eventually to Paris. In 1950, he made his way to the United States and quickly rose in the church, settling into a sprawling farmhouse in the suburbs of Michigan.
There had been talk since the early 1950s about Trifa’s Nazi past, and the federal government eventually filed a complaint against him, repeatedly pressed by a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Romania who had emigrated to the United States after the war. OSI took over the prosecution, and Black had helped prepare for a hearing, organizing Trifa’s articles and speeches as well as German Foreign Office and police documents found in Bonn, Vienna, Bucharest, and other cities. Black had discovered the original leaflet written by Trifa and dispersed to a crowd in Bucharest on the night before the rioting.
All told, OSI prosecutors had a trove of 750 documents, along with a 500-page report written by Black that chronicled Trifa’s activities during the war. “Trifa’s speeches, articles and newspaper editorials,” Black had concluded, “had pounded home the themes of hatred towards Jews and foreigners.”
The deportation hearing for an archbishop who had once delivered the benediction before Congress had drawn intense interest, and journalists, Jewish leaders, and lawyers packed the courtroom. The diocese had hired its own attorney, who sat at the defense table alongside Trifa.
Black wondered whether the archbishop would take the stand, a tantalizing thought after so many months of research, burrowing inside the mind of a stranger. Black often wished he could talk to the dead, and now he found himself sitting only a few feet away from a historical subject.
The OSI prosecutor on the case was Kathleen Coleman, a meticulous lawyer who had joined the unit after working as an assistant attorney general in the US Virgin Islands. Months earlier, Black and Coleman had traveled to Israel together to prepare for another case, sharing the short highway between Tel Aviv and Haifa with Israeli troop convoys that were headed to and from the battle inside Lebanon, which had been invaded by Israeli forces a week earlier.
On a break, Black visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, lingering before an exhibit that showcased a postcard written by a Hungarian Jewish boy. In 1944, the boy had been deported to Auschwitz, the largest and deadliest concentration camp complex, about sixty kilometers west of German-occupied Krakow.
“I’m okay,” the boy had written to family in Hungary. “They are putting us to work.”
He had used big, looping letters, the careful cursive of a grades-chool child. Black stood there for a long while, thinking about his own son, Aaron, born just two months earlier, and knowing that the Hungarian boy was likely already dead by the time his note reached home.
Immigration judge Bellino D’Ambrosio called the Trifa hearing to order, and Coleman stood up. She would summon a leading expert on Romanian history and several historical witnesses to the stand, but the heart of the case rested on Trifa’s speeches, newspaper editorials, and articles.
Looking at the archbishop, who had once proclaimed that “Yid” blood was vile, Black wondered what had moved the son of a Transylvanian schoolteacher to such a hateful place. Coleman turned to the judge.
“Had the truth been known about Viorel Trifa,” Coleman said, using Trifa’s given name, “he would have been excluded from the United States.”
“I think the government has vastly overstated what the evidence will show,” Trifa’s defense attorney countered. “The government’s characterizations are historically incorrect.”
Black knew with absolute certainty that wasn’t the case. He had documented every stage of Trifa’s life, and the work had been grueling. At home at night, he often sat with Mary watching Perry Mason reruns, trying to free his mind from grim, dark spaces.
Two days in federal court passed quickly. On the morning of the third day, Black glanced across the room at Trifa, whose eyes were hidden behind horn-rimmed glasses. Coleman had spent hours probing Trifa’s involvement in the Iron Guard, and overnight there was talk among the lawyers about a settlement in the case.
From the prosecutor’s table, Allan Ryan stood up. Though some members of the Jewish community had balked at the idea of an Irish Catholic leading the new Office of Special Investigations, Black considered the 37-year-old former assistant to the solicitor general a fierce advocate for the unit. Broad shouldered, with a thick mustache and beard, the ex–Marine Corps captain had gathered the OSI staff together a few months after Black moved to Washington.
No federal judge, Ryan warned, was going to revoke the citizenship of an older, law-abiding immigrant simply because of falsified information on a visa application.
“These are war-crimes cases. These are not immigration cases,” Ryan had insisted. “What we have to do is show the judge and whoever else is watching that this 65-year-old guy who works in a factory or who owns a motel in Florida, we’ve got to show what this guy did in 1941, 42, 43, 44, and 45. We need the witnesses. We need the evidence. We need the documents. We need to paint the whole picture for the judge, and we’re going to have to start at the beginning.”
Ryan had decided that historians needed to play a central role in the investigative process. He gradually reduced the number of criminal investigators and hired more historians. “I want all the historians to think like lawyers,” Ryan said, “and I want all the lawyers to think like historians. That’s the only way we’re going to make progress here.”
Black had been grateful for the focus on context and history.
For two days in federal court, Ryan had sat quietly next to Coleman. Now he turned to face the judge. “We have agreed to a settlement of the case.”
The archbishop, Ryan said, would admit that he had been a member of the Iron Guard and had perjured himself to come to America. He would leave the United States within 60 days of obtaining travel documents from a country willing to accept him. In exchange, the Justice Department would no longer pursue the case.
The judge turned to Trifa, and Black leaned forward in his chair, eager, for the record of history, to hear the man’s voice and even the briefest explanation about his work and mindset during the war. Trifa stood up and made his way to the lectern in the middle of the courtroom.Poland had once been home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, 3.3 million people, second only to that of the United States.
“Sir, will you state your name for the record?” the judge asked.
“My name is Valerian D. Trifa.” His eastern European accent hadn’t faded after three decades in America.
“How old are you?”
“I am 68.”
“Are you at this time under the influence of any type of alcohol, drugs or medication?”
“Do you suffer from any types of illness which would in any way affect your ability to understand the nature and purpose of these proceedings, why you are here, and what could happen to you?”
“I am not fully healthy, but I am aware of why I am here, yes.”
“Do you understand the agreement which you heard read at this time and which has been signed by you?”
“Did you enter this agreement at your own free will and of your own decision?”
“All right, thank you, Mr. Trifa.”
“Thank you,” Trifa said and sat back down.
Black knew that he would likely never again hear from Trifa, who was hoping to leave for Switzerland. Under federal law, deportable aliens had the right to choose a destination.
“All right,” the judge said. “I enter an order that he be deported to the country of designation.”
Coleman and Ryan started packing up, and Black watched months of research disappear inside boxes and briefcases. Ryan paused and turned to Black.
“Do you want to call the press on this?”
It was an unusually magnanimous offer. The Justice Department typically put only top lawyers before the media, not a historian who was earning less money and had less experience than some veteran government secretaries and paralegals. Black nodded and walked to a nearby office in the courthouse to make the call.
The next morning, the Chicago Tribune reported, “The deportation order was disclosed by Peter Black, historian for the Office of Special Investigations in the Justice Department.”
There was no time to dwell on the government’s victory. Hundreds of clues and leads were waiting back in Washington. Some came from West Berlin, which had a central repository of Nazi rosters and records with names that could be vetted and potentially matched to those of men living in the United States. Other leads came from tips and media accounts.
One case was particularly compelling.
Years earlier, an article in a Soviet Lithuanian newspaper had alerted the Justice Department to a 60-two-year-old Chicago man named Liudas Kairys, who had emigrated to the United States in 1949. He found work at the Cracker Jack Company, married another Lithuanian immigrant, and had two daughters.
The Soviets, responding to a request from US investigators, had produced a personnel file that showed that Kairys lied about his whereabouts during the war. On his visa application, Kairys claimed that he had worked on his father’s farm.
The records, however, showed that he had been a guard in 1943 and 1944 at the notorious Treblinka labor camp in German-occupied Poland, where Jewish prisoners were forced to haul great piles of coal and stone and load sand from the banks of a river. The labor camp was about two kilometers from the Treblinka gas chambers, and prisoners considered too weak to work were simply dumped overnight between the fences on the perimeter of the labor camp and sent to their deaths the next morning.
The Office of Special Investigations had gone to court to strip Kairys of his US citizenship, the first step toward deportation. Prosecutors had largely focused on his service at Treblinka, but his personnel file had also listed the name of a Polish village, southeast of Lublin, where Kairys had spent time in 1942 and 1943 before he went to Treblinka.
In history books, in transcripts from the trials at Nuremberg, and in some captured German documents, Black had seen scattered references to Trawniki, where, on the grounds of an old sugar factory, the SS had trained and deployed guards for deportation operations in Jewish ghettos and for work in occupied Poland’s Nazi-run labor camps and killing centers. But historians had uncovered relatively little about the training camp itself or the extent of its role in the destruction of Poland’s Jews, a conspicuous gap in the history of the war.
There had to be something more, Black thought. The idea was intriguing, an unexplored sliver of history.
Poland had once been home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, 3.3 million people, second only to that of the United States. But in less than 20 months, the Germans had wiped out 1.7 million Jews in a mass-murder spree that had been code-named Operation Reinhard, after the SS general Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office and an architect of the Holocaust.
It had been an unprecedented and comprehensive operation: rounding up Jews from ghettos across German-occupied Poland and sending them on trucks, on freight-train cars, and on foot to three killing centers established solely for death. Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka had no need for holding cells because prisoners were killed upon entry in gas chambers within a few hundred yards of the train tracks.
The Jews of Lublin had been among the first to die. The village of Trawniki was 40 kilometers away.
References to Trawniki, Black knew, had appeared in four other American court cases. In records connected to the Kairys case, OSI had identified Massachusetts resident Vladas Zajanckauskas, who told investigators in 1981 that he had been deployed merely as a server in the canteen at Trawniki. Since OSI had no records to contradict his story, lawyers agreed to set aside a case, at least until any new information emerged.
Back in the 1970s, federal prosecutors in Florida had pursued another man, a retired brass-factory worker named Feodor Fedorenko, who had served at the Treblinka killing center. Fedorenko had helped force trainloads of Jewish victims from the so-called reception area through the undressing barracks to the gas chambers, which were fed by a diesel engine removed from a captured Soviet tank. “Dante’s Inferno,” Treblinka’s commandant had called it. Before Treblinka, Fedorenko had also been stationed in the camp at Trawniki.
And so had another man, a Ford Motor Company worker found in the suburbs of Cleveland. Jewish survivors had identified John “Ivan” Demjanjuk as a sadistic guard who beat prisoners with a gas pipe on the final march to the gas chambers at Treblinka. The capture of the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” on American soil had drawn international headlines. Demjanjuk, too, had spent months during the war at Trawniki.
Records in the Demjanjuk case had revealed the name of yet another Trawniki alumnus, living in New York since 1952. Under questioning in 1980, Jakob Reimer had maintained that he worked only as an accountant and paymaster in the administrative offices at Trawniki, and no case was brought against him.
What had taken place in the little-known village in southeastern Poland? The answers, Black suspected, likely sat behind lock and key in Soviet and Eastern European archives.
In the busy months after the Trifa hearing, Black filed the information away, a mystery for another day.
Excerpted from Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America by Debbie Cenziper. Copyright © 2019. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.