Dozens of Yeshiva students and faculty gathered last week outside the Queens homes of two accused former Nazis to demand they be deported.
Jaroslaw Bilaniuk, 82, and Jakiw Palij, 81, allegedly served as armed guards at the Trawniki slave labor camp in Poland, where 6,000 Jews were slaughtered in November 1943. Both men emigrated to the United States as refugees of World War II and were granted U.S. citizenship in 1957.
Trawniki was a training ground for Eastern European recruits for Operation Reinhard, which led to the deaths of about 1.7 million Jews.
The protesters, from Rambam Mesivta High School in Lawrence, Long Island, hold the demonstrations each year to commemorate the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass.” On November 9, 1938, gangs of Nazi storm troopers broke the windows of Jewish businesses, set fire to synagogues and dragged Jews out of their homes, where they were beaten, arrested and even murdered.
“It is an outrage the young Americans died fighting the Nazis and were unable to return to the shores of this great country, while Nazi war criminals were able to live here freely,” said Rabbi Zev Friedman, the school’s dean.
The students protested first in front of Palij’s Jackson Heights home, before piling into buses to picket Bilaniuk in Douglaston.
“I was outraged by the fact that a Nazi war criminal is living in Queens and we give him the benefits of a regular citizen when he committed crimes against humanity,” said Yaakov Miller, 17, a student who took part in the protests.
“It’s a matter of education,” said classmate Michael Pifem, 17. “It’s a matter of getting it out to the public: there was genocide in the past, there are genocides going on now, and there may be genocides in the future.”
According to the Justice Department, both Bilaniuk and Palij trained at Trawniki to serve as guard auxiliaries for Operation Reinhard, under which Jews not put to death were imprisoned in slave labor camps.
On November 3 and November 4, 1943, nearly all Jewish prisoners at Trawniki were murdered, under the code name “Operation Harvest Festival.” Similar atrocities were committed at the same time throughout the Lublin district of Nazi-occupied Poland, marking the conclusion of Operation Reinhard.
The two immigrated to the United States in 1949 and shared an apartment in Manhattan. Both submitted applications to file for naturalization on the same day in 1957, using the same witness.
In 2003, a federal judge stripped Palij of his citizenship for falsely stating in his immigration papers in 1949 that he worked at a farm in Poland and at a German factory when he was actually serving as an armed guard at Trawniki.
According to published accounts, Palij is in frail health and lives on 89th Street with his wife, who has Alzheimer’s disease. He told the New York Times in 2003 that he and other young men were forced by the Nazis to work as guards. He said he and his family would have been killed if he refused.
The Justice Department is pursuing a similar case against Bilaniuk. He is also accused of misrepresenting his wartime activities, saying he worked at his own shop in Poland and then at a German farm during the war.
His family issued a statement in 2002 proclaiming his innocence. “Our family and relatives were also victims of the Nazi regime and sheltered Jews in the Ukraine risking the penalty of death,” the statement read. Neighbors say the family has lived in a duplex they own on 241st Street for more than 20 years. (Palij and Bilaniuk both hail from a region of Poland that was ceded to the Ukraine after World War II.)
Palij received a deportation order in June 2004. His case is pending appeal. Bilaniuk is awaiting judgment in his denaturalization process. Jewish groups are lobbying U.S. representatives to speed the process.
Congressman Anthony Weiner has written a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff requesting that he expedite the deportations. Another possible option is lobbying the Ukraine government to convict the two, in which case they would face immediate deportation.