NEW YORK -- A courtroom 15 stories above Manhattan recently reverberated with the echo of a rifle shot fired decades ago into a pit dug in Poland's dark and bloody ground. The shooter, Jack Reimer, now 79, a slight, stooped man with a shock of wavy gray hair, says he feigned shooting at the Jews, who were dead, already, and he had to do it to save his life.
The U.S. government thinks there is much more to Reimer's story and wants the former Brooklyn salesman of Wise potato chips, who came to the United States in 1952, deported.
Reimer, an ethnic German born in Ukraine, was conscripted into the Red Army, thrown into the maw of the invading Wehrmacht, captured and confined in an open-air POW camp where, he says, trucks carted away corpses every morning. One day, he says, his German captors trucked him and other German-speaking POWs off to the Trawniki training camp in eastern Poland.
There, according to the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, thousands of persons, many of them POWs, were trained as SS personnel to do the grunt work of genocide -- liquidating Jewish ghettos and guarding the death and forced labor camps in Poland.
He wore a uniform and carried a weapon.
At this point Reimer's story becomes vaguer and given to more versions than can plausibly be explained by mere age. One day, he says, he overslept (in another version, he fell and briefly knocked himself out) and the squad he commanded went off without him to carry out German orders to kill Jews. When he reached the pit, the Jews had been shot, but a German ordered him to fire into the bodies in the pit. Reimer says he could have been shot if he had not fired his weapon. However, he now asserts, he deliberately fired to miss, even though he knew, he says, that everyone in the pit was dead.
In an earlier version, told to OSI attorneys, he said one head protruded from the jumble of 50 to 60 bodies and a hand pointed to the head, indicating the person wished to be shot and put out of his misery, so Reimer said he did.
The government brought Simon Friedman, also 79, from his retirement in Florida to testify about the day in July 1944 when Ukrainian guards and SS troops with dogs were shooting prisoners in the Treblinka labor camp. On the march to the pits the prisoners had dug in the forest, Friedman tried to escape, but was shot in the wrist and neck. He feigned death, laying in a field until dark, then escaped. Laying there he heard the sounds of mortally wounded prisoners dying slowly in the pits. The point of his testimony was to establish that Reimer could not have known that those in the pit into which he shot were dead.
Reimer's lawyer is a piece of lint from the 1960s, Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general who says this about genocide: "The sanctions against Iraq imposed by the Security Council of the United Nations are inflicting the cruelest genocide in history." Perhaps Reimer should not be accused of guilt by association with his own lawyer, but the implausibility of Reimer's varying recollections makes him a candidate for deportation on grounds that he lied about his past.
Immigration law forbids entry to anyone who assisted in Nazi persecution. Being a decorated member of an SS auxiliary unit should be sufficient evidence of such assistance. He says that after his one rifle shot, he spent the war looking after supplies, not looking for Jews. He says the Holocaust was a well-kept secret, and he was oblivious to it, although he was present at the liquidation of several ghettos. A judge will decide.
Because genocide was routinized, bureaucratized, industrialized, it required the participation of hundreds of thousands of little human cogs in the killing machinery. Hence the notion of the "banality of evil." Reimer, sitting passively in court in his cardigan sweater and running shoes, looks too insignificant to have mattered then, let alone now.
However, the unspeakable was done by the unremarkable, and it speaks well of American justice that it will not close the books on bestiality.
The evil was incommensurable but any retribution is an act of remembrance, which still stands between the victims and oblivion.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 8/27/98