Conflict & Justice

After years in obscurity, a Philadelphia man stands accused as a Holocaust collaborator

Auschwitz wire.jpg

Credit: Pimke/Wikimedia commons

A barbed wire fence surrounds the labor camp at Auschwitz I. Johann Breyer says he worked here as a guard during World War II and not at the nearby gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Some unfinished business from World War II is playing out in Philadelphia.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the audio to hear it.)

Eighty-nine-year-old Johann Breyer was a retired tool worker from the former nation of Czechoslovakia — until this week. Today he stands accused of serving as an armed guard at Auschwitz, and of working in the camp's infamous gas chambers.

"He was arrested by federal authorities at his home in northeast Philadelphia on Tuesday," says Dave Davies, a senior reporter at WHYY. "A German court in June issued a warrant for his arrest, based on new information about his activities during World War II. They went through the State Department and the US Attorney's office developed the proper paperwork and arrested him."

Breyer may have seen this arrest coming. Over the past 20 years, Davies says, Breyer was questioned by authorities about his role at Auschwitz.

"I think he knew he was under scrutiny," Davies says. "But I doubt he expected officials to show up and arrest him."

Even though Breyer is older, his age might not shield him from accountability.

"There's no reason to ignore people just because they were born in 1923 or born in 1925 — if he's physically and mentally able to face charges, there's absolutely no reason to ignore him," says Efraim Zuroff, a self-described Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers."

Davies says Breyer has long admitted he was a guard at Auschwitz, which was primarily a labor camp. But Breyer denied that he worked at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which was an extermination center.

"That was a place where more than 1 million people were sent specifically to be gassed and then cremated," Davies explains. "Breyer has always denied that he was ever there. What we now have is new evidence that, in fact, he and his unit were at that facility exterminating hundreds of thousands of people throughout 1944."

While the evidence shows that Breyer's unit was at Birkenau, Davies says there is no specific evidence of him exhibiting sadistic pleasure in killing people or personally beating people to death.

"What he's accused of is being one of the many guards who were there, essentially making sure that prisoners marched to their deaths, and then disposed of the bodies afterward," says Davies. 

But enabling the Nazis to carry out their heinous operations is in many ways a crime in and of itself.

"Obviously, someone like Breyer is not as guilty as the people who planned, built and commanded Auschwitiz," Zuroff says. "It's those 'Breyers' who made it possible for the Nazis to carry out horrific plans to mass murder as many Jews and other people who were classified as enemies of the Reich."

Breyer will face an extradition hearing in August, where he will likely argue he was just a teen when he was recruited by the SS in Czechoslovakia.

"All of his acts in the war ended before he reached the age of 20, so he was a very young man," Davies says. "I suspect that they will argue that he had little choice — once he was in the Waffen-SS and once he was assigned guard duty, he had little option other than to do what he was told. I guess the court will have to consider that."

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