Hundreds of students lined up along 89th Street in front of a Jackson Heights house on Monday to deliver a simple message to its occupant: get out now.
Bused in from Rambam Mesivta High School in Long Island, the students directed their words at Jakiw Palij, a former Nazi concentration camp guard who has lived in the quiet neighborhood for decades.
On April 24, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Palij is the last remaining adjudicated Nazi in the country, according to Jewish leaders.
“We’re here to express outrage that there is a Nazi murderer, who killed thousands of people and part of the Hitler killing machine, living right in that house,” said Rabbi Zev Meir Friedman, dean of Rambam Mesivta. “It’s an outrageous thing that he’s able to live here.”
Friedman, faculty, staff and students chanted “just get out” and “no Palij in the USA” while Palij’s neighbors looked on from their front doors or windows. Friedman knocked on the door, but there was no response. It was unclear whether Palij, 92, was in the house during the demonstration.
Friedman even turned his attention to the residents, informing them that their neighbor is a Nazi.
“He actually came here and he beat the system,” he said. “He’s been here for many years, collecting social security and getting all the benefits of American society.
“He thinks he snuck in here and is able to continue to live his life freely,” Friedman added. “But we’re letting him know that your time is up. We’re after you.”
According to Friedman, Palij was an armed guard at the German-occupied camp in Trawniki, Poland. He prevented Jewish captives from escaping and therefore allowed a mass murder on November 3, 1943, when all 6,000 of the camp’s survivors were shot to death as part of “Operation Harvest Festival.”
Nearly 14 years ago, Friedman said, the U.S. Department of Justice won a court order for his deportation. The country also stripped him of his citizenship after he was caught lying on his citizenship application to enter the country, according to Friedman.
But Germany wouldn’t take him. Poland and Ukraine, countries that dispute where the concentration camp was located, also don’t want him, Friedman said.
As a result, Palij has been living in Jackson Heights for decades with nowhere else to go. Friedman and his school are urging Germany to take action.
“He doesn’t belong in this country, let him stand justice and be on trial in Germany,” he said. “Germany has a moral obligation to take him back. He fought with German bullets, a German-issued uniform. He was trained and instructed by the Germans.”
Friedman brought up that some people think that at 92 years old, Palij should just be left alone. The school dean said he doesn’t agree.
“He was 20 years old when these crimes took place. I don’t view him as a 92-year-old nice old man,” he said. “I view him as a 20-year-old murderer that got away with his crimes for 72 years.
“If Bashar al-Assad was 92 years old and moved into this neighborhood, we’d be outraged. We wouldn’t let him live here,” he added. “If Osama bin Laden moved into his neighborhood, we wouldn’t say he’s an old man, leave him alone. He’s a murderer.”
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Friedman said he wants his students to know that “evil will flourish in the world if no one does anything to stop it.” The protest served as a lesson for the students.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also received an award from the U.S. Holocaust Museum on April 24 for her country’s role recognizing the tragedy. Friedman called it “unconscionable” that she would be honored while not taking Palij back for trial.
“We think something should be done forcefully to evict him, despite his age, to make a moral statement,” he said. “But no one has taken him. We, all of us as American citizens, are stuck with him. We don’t think that’s right.”
Hillel Goldman, an assistant principal at the school, led chants of “kick him out.”
“How can we allow this murderer to remain while the memory of those he killed cries out?” he said. “His hands are drenched in blood.”
At one point during the rally, a voice near the brick house shouted, “What makes you better than him?”
Friedman, in response, argued that Palij would’ve “killed everyone in Jackson Heights.”
“Unless you had blonde hair and blue eyes and were a pure-blood Aryan and German, he would’ve killed the blacks, Hispanics, Jews,” he said. “People from all different origins, which is what Jackson Heights is famous for. He would’ve killed you just as quickly as he killed the 6,000 people in Trawniki.”
Congressman Joseph Crowley, who represents Jackson Heights, wrote a letter to Friedman in support of the student protest at Palij’s house.
“I find is entirely unconscionable that Jakiw Palij has been able to escape justice for over six decades,” Crowley wrote. “It if my firm belief that all who aided and abetted the Nazis in the commission of their crimes against humanity must be brought to the light of justice.
“While I am happy that the United States Court system saw fit to strip him of his citizenship for the atrocities he committed, that he is still living a free and comfortable life in the United States 14 years later is a complete and utter travesty,” Crowley added. “We cannot allow perpetrators of such disgusting acts to live unpunished.”