A 94-year-old former Nazi concentration camp who lived undiscovered in the US for decades is to be deported to Germany, where he could face prosecution, after his appeal against a deportation order was rejected this week.
Friedrich Karl Berger succeeded in covering up his role as a concentration camp guard for more than 70 years and still receives a pension for his wartime service in the German navy.
His past finally caught up with him when an SS index card of his service record was found among documents rescued from a German ship sunk by the RAF in 1945.
The card revealed he had served as a guard at one of the Neuengamme network of concentration camps in northern Germany, where more than 40,000 prisoners including Jews, Poles and Russian POWs were worked to death as slave labourers.
“After 75 years, this is ridiculous. I cannot believe it,” Mr Berger told The Washington Post when the original deportation order was handed down in February. “You’re forcing me out of my home.”
At his deportation hearing he admitted serving as a guard at the camp but maintained he had no choice, was only there a short time and did not carry a weapon.
“I was 19 years old. I was ordered to go there,” he told his deportation hearing in the US.
But the hearing was told that he had helped force camp inmates on a brutal two-week march in 1945 during which at least 70 died.
German prosecutors have yet to announce whether Mr Berger will face charges on his return to the country, but a number of elderly former concentration camp guards have been tried and convicted in recent years.
In 2015, Oskar Gröning, the 94-year-old “book-keeper of Auschwitz”, was found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Jews and sentenced to four years in prison, but died before he could serve his sentence. In July, Bruno Dey, a 93-year-old former SS guard at Stutthof concentration camp, was found guilty of 5,232 counts of accessort to murder and handed a two-year suspended sentence in July.
Unlike most concentration camp guards, Mr Berger was never a member of the SS. He served in the German navy and was assigned as a guard to the Neuengamme subcamp at Meppen, in north-western Germany.
The hearing was told how he escorted prisoners to work as slave labourers each day digging anti-tank fortifications “to the point of exhaustion and death”. In March 1945, he guarded prisoners on a two-week forced march when the Nazis abandoned Meppen and fled advancing British and Canadian forces.
Following the war, Mr Berger hid his involvement at the camp. He emigrated to Canada with his wife and daughter in 1946, and moved to the US in 1959, living undetected in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town better known as one of the production sites for the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. He retained his German citizenship and received a pension for his wartime naval service.
His past finally emerged from a set of index cards recovered from SS Thielbek, a German ship sunk by the RAF in the Bay of Lübeck in May 1945. The index cards were recovered and transcribed in 1950 after the Thielbek was raised from the sea and repaired, but it was not until decades later that US prosecutors succeeded in linking them to the elderly man living quietly in Tennessee.
“Berger was an active participant in one of the darkest chapters in human history," said Louis A Rodi III, deputy assistant director of US Immigration and Customs’ national security investigations division.
"He attempted to shed his nefarious past to come to America and start anew, but thanks to the dedication of those at the Department of Justice and Homeland Security Investigations, the truth was revealed."
“War criminals and violators of human rights will not be allowed to evade justice and find safe haven here.”