Christopher Wray, Trump's Nominee for FBI Chief, Hunted Nazis Hiding in the U.S.

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Christopher Wray.
Christopher Wray.Credit: HANDOUT/REUTERS

Christopher Wray, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee for FBI chief, is best known for his reputation as a white-collar criminal lawyer. But during his 2003 to 2005 tenure as assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division, he also helped spearhead efforts to strip U.S. citizenship from and deport numerous former Nazi concentration camp guards living in the United States.

His cases included the denaturalization of the notorious former Sobibor death camp guard John Demjanjuk, which paved the way to his deportation to Germany.

Demjanjuk was stripped of his U.S. citizenship by a federal court in 2002, but appealed the decision. Under Wray in 2004, the Justice Department successfully argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals that the government had proved convincingly that Demanjuk had committed crimes that exploited and exterminated Jews in Poland.

At the time, Wray said that “Those, like Demjanjuk, who participated in Nazi atrocities do not belong in this country. We will take all appropriate steps to make sure that these individuals do not enjoy the privileges of U.S. citizenship.”

Demanjuk, a retired Ukrainian auto worker in Cleveland, had been famously extradited to Israel in 1986, where he was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death. But the former camp guard returned to the U.S. after the Israeli Supreme Court found that reasonable doubt existed as to whether Demjanjuk was indeed the notorious “Ivan the Terrible.” 

After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, however, evidence emerged that Demanjuk was a “willing” concentration camp guard who participated in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews in gas chambers. With the new evidence, Demjanjuk was charged again in 2001. He was stripped of his citizenship, but remained in the U.S. until 2009, when Germany agreed to take him in. He died in Germany in 2012, a year after he was convicted by a German court of murdering tens of thousands of Jews.

Demjanujuk was the highest profile of numerous cases in which Wray oversaw the stripping of U.S. citizenship and in several cases, successful deportation of former Nazi prison guards, or, in some cases, members of police forces in Eastern Europe who actively participated in atrocities against Jews and others. The prosecutions were pursued in partnership with Eli M. Rosenbaum, Director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, who was popularly known as the “Nazi-hunter” for his effort to track down Nazi war criminals who lived covertly in the U.S. and blocking those who tried to enter the country.

In 2005, Wray left the Justice Department for private practice.

Trump’s choice of Wray must now go before the U.S. Senate for approval. He will replace former FBI Director James Comey, who the president fired last month amid the agency's ongoing probe into alleged Russian meddling into the U.S. election. Trump's announcement of his selection of Wray comes just before Comey is to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Moscow's alleged interference and any potential ties to Trump's campaign or associates.

Ray’s two-year tenure at the DOJ’s criminal division marked a period of intensive activity identifying perpetrators of Nazi atrocities. Only one of Wray’s cases from that time remains unresolved as he returns to the Justice Department - the case of 92-year-old Jakiw Palij, a Polish man who still lives in Jackson Heights, Queens. Palij was dubbed “The Nazi Next Door” by New York tabloids when yeshiva students protested outside his home on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In November 2003, Wray announced the initiation of deportation proceedings against Palij based on his service as an armed guard at a Nazi forced labor camp in German-occupied Poland – now part of Ukraine – following the revocation of his U.S. citizenship. Wray stated at the time that, “By guarding prisoners of Nazi forced labor camps and preventing their escape, Palij and his fellow guards actively aided the Nazis’ scheme to annihilate the Jews of Europe.”

In the document charging him, it was detailed that Palij guarded the camp while armed with a rifle and prevented the prisoners from escaping. On November 3 and 4, 1943, while Palij was there, the document said, “the approximately 6,000 surviving prisoners of the camp, along with tens of thousands of other prisoners in Poland, were murdered as part of an operation to which the SS assigned the macabre code-name ‘Operation Harvest Festival.’“

When Palij applied for an immigration visa to the United States in 1949, he falsely claimed that he worked on his father’s farm and then worked in Germany. In fact, he served with the Nazi in Poland during that period. Palij denies the accusations against him and has stayed in his New York home despite the revocation of his citizenship and ordered deportatio. Neither Ukraine, Poland, nor Germany has been willing to accept him.

In an editorial this year, the Daily News called on German chancellor Angela Merkel to receive Palij and try him for his crimes. The piece counted Palij among the other undocumented criminals that Trump has advocated to force out of the country.  

“President Trump has long talked about deporting people who shouldn’t be here. He should put Palij first on the list – and if Merkel won’t take Palij, dump him in Guantanamo.”

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