By: Fern Sidman
A former Nazi concentration camp guard who has lived for the last 50 years in western Pennsylvania, is now engaged in legal wrangling against deportation proceedings initiated by the government. According to published reports, on Thursday, December 6th, 88-year old Anton Geiser, took his fight against deportation to the nation’s highest immigration court, proffering the argument that he shouldn’t be punished because he served in Hitler’s army against his will. Geiser, of Sharon, Pennsylvania, who has acknowledged his service in the Nazi SS as a guard in the Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald concentration camps, had his appeal in the case heard by the Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls Church, Virginia.
Back in 2010, a federal judge ordered him deported on grounds of engaging in crimes against humanity. Geiser’s attorney, Adrian Roe, has argued that the court should have considered that Geiser was forced to join the SS against his will as a 17-year-old. Lawyers representing the government have argued to uphold the deportation decision, saying that federal law places former Nazis in a harsher immigration category, and no exceptions should be made because of compulsory service. Mr. Roe has acknowledged that Congress did indeed place Nazis in a separate, harsher category when it comes to determining their rights to immigrate to and live in the United States, but he said that not everyone conscripted into the Hitler war machine is truly a Nazi. “The label Nazi itself sort of goes to belief,” Roe said. “If they were a true believer, we don’t want them here. If they were a forced participant, are they really a Nazi?”
Geiser, who was recently hospitalized, did not attend Thursday’s hearing. He came to the U.S. in 1956 and was naturalized in 1962. He lived in Sharon, about 75 miles north of Pittsburgh, where he worked in a steel mill for decades and raised five children.
Susan Siegal, a Justice Department lawyer cast credible doubts on Geiser’s assertion that his service as a Nazi SS camp guard was truly involuntary. She said he could have requested a transfer back to the Russian front, where he was initially serving, or that he could have simply walked away from service or defied immoral orders. She said the Nuremberg trials after World War II and military code established the precedent that following immoral orders is not an adequate defense. “I’m sorry- Mr. Geiser did engage in crimes against humanity,” Siegal said.
Roe took exception to the portrayal of Geiser as a war criminal. Geiser says he was forced to join the SS in 1942 and that he never killed anyone, though tens of thousands are believed to have died at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. Geiser does not dispute that the Nazi camps were horrific and he previously told prosecutors he was ashamed of his service. “I was not proud where I served and I didn’t like it then and I didn’t like it now,” he said.
The hearing, for the most part, did not focus on Geiser’s crimes during the war, but on narrow questions of legal precedent and procedural issues. Roe argued that a 2009 Supreme Court decision requires immigration judges to consider whether an alleged perpetrator of persecution was doing so voluntarily. More broadly, he said US law in nearly all aspects takes into account whether a person was compelled to behave against his will and he asserted that the same principles should be extended to Geiser’s case.
The three members of the Board that heard the case – two appointed by Republicans, one by a Democrat – are expected to issue their ruling in a few months. While it is the highest immigration court, it is an administrative body and its rulings are subject to review by federal judges and the Supreme Court. It is expected that the board’s ruling will be appealed by the losing side.
“We hope that Geiser is deported,” said Joy Braunstein, director of the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. But Kurt Schrimm, the head of the special prosecutors’ office in Germany that investigates Nazi war crimes, said they aren’t currently investigating Geiser’s case and the Austrian Justice Ministry said it hasn’t corresponded with American authorities.
In the case of Johann Breyer of Philadelphia, another accused former Nazi guard, a judge allowed him to stay in the US reasoning in part that because Breyer had joined the SS at age 17, he couldn’t be held responsible for what he did as a minor. Federal prosecutors, however, say that even if Anton Geiser didn’t kill anyone, his work as a concentration camp guard makes him a party to the persecution of countless men, women and children, no matter how long ago that happened. Geiser escorted prisoners to slave labor sites and was under orders to shoot any prisoners who attempted to escape. Both sides agree that Geiser guarded only the perimeter of the camps, but previous court rulings have found that doing so is enough to make someone ineligible for US citizenship.
The Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald camps held some political and military prisoners, but tens of thousands of people also died there under horrific conditions, such as starvation, slave labor, medical experiments and executions. Peter Black, the senior historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that it’s “very difficult” to tell whether any particular individual actually volunteered for the SS or was pressured to join, but he did say that guards were essential to the concentration camp system.
“Even if they don’t have any contact with a prisoner, by walking the perimeter as an armed guard, they are helping to keep the people inside that place where they are enduring persecution,” Black said, adding that SS guards were paid, received leave time and health benefits for their service.
In 2006, a federal judge in Pittsburgh revoked Geiser’s citizenship and then was ordered deported by a federal judge four years later. Having lost a circuit court appeal in 2008, the US Supreme Court refused to hear his case in 2009. In 2010 an immigration judge ordered him deported to Austria, or any other country that will take him. The Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. did not immediately respond to a question about whether the country would accept Geiser.
The Justice Department didn’t respond to questions for comment on the Geiser case, which is part of its efforts to investigate former Nazis. Since the 1979 inception of the program, it has won more than 100 cases.