Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America by Debbie Cenziper

Somewhere in every Holocaust survivor’s story there is a miracle—the sudden intervention of fate, or luck, or divine providence that alters the grim inevitability of events. For Feliks Wojcik, a 19-year-old Jewish medical student who fled east as the invading German army approached his home—the bustling, assimilated city of Lublin, Poland—that moment came after he stepped out of a concealing copse of birch trees and was instantly surrounded by armed men. Led at gunpoint to the square of a small shtetl in Galicia, where inert bodies were already strewn like debris across the bloodstained cobblestones, Wojcik was shoved to his knees by a German officer. He stared at a brick wall, waiting for his life to be over. Suddenly bullets began spraying the square, but they were coming from above, as if sent from Heaven, mowing down the German executioners. Wojcik looked up and saw the streaking silhouettes of Soviet warplanes. Then he was on his feet, running for his life.

Wojcik’s improbable escape that day was just the start of a tense, cruel journey that took him—and the teenage bride he’d soon marry—through the constant horrors that fueled the Nazi annihilation of Europe’s Jews. Yet it was also a miracle that led the couple to a new life in America, where they had children and grandchildren, and where Wojcik lived to 92, a practicing physician for half a century.

Then he was on his feet, running for his life.

Similarly, in every successful story about the postwar hunt for the murderers of the Six Million, for the justice that had been boldly (and rather optimistically) promised at the Nuremberg trials, there is a eureka moment—a sudden, chance discovery that propels the quest to its conclusion. For Peter Black, a young historian at the Office of Special Investigations (OSI)—the Justice-Department task force that Congress had established in 1979 to bring Nazi war criminals living in America to justice—the mobilizing insight came as he sat at his desk on a dreary afternoon in December, 1988.

An attorney handed him a cable from the Soviet Foreign Ministry that tied two suspects to a seemingly innocuous military training camp in Poland called Trawniki. A coincidence? Or was Trawniki something more ominous than he’d previously realized? For Black and the OSI these questions were the catalysts for a determined hunt in archives throughout Europe—a pursuit that led to the grisly documentation of Trawniki as “a school for mass murder” and its soldiers, some of whom had quietly taken refuge in the U.S., as killers.

Darkness and Light

It is these two bifurcated stories that Debbie Cenziper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who now directs the investigative journalism program at Northwestern’s Medill School, tells with vivid detail and affecting, unsentimental control in Citizen 865. “A story about darkness but also about light,” Ms. Cenziper explains in an introductory author’s note. She is correct: the two tales, each skillfully and gracefully told, are decidedly separate stories. And that is also the book’s fundamental problem: its narrative architecture is flawed.

You read along, closely following the two tracks—one a wrenching personal drama, the other a suspenseful detective story—anticipating the payoff when the two will merge dramatically in the courtroom: the Wojciks staring down their tormentors, providing the eyewitness testimony that will shoot the avenging arrows of American justice at the cold-blooded Trawniki henchmen. But this never happens—the two story lines are largely unique, never intersecting. And the decision to tell these two distinct histories is made even more perplexing when, with little introduction, other survivors (each of whom’s life was, like the Wojciks’, an unlikely triumph over overwhelming adversity) make brief appearances at the trial of a Trawniki-trained executioner. Ms. Cenziper has, in effect, written two books in one volume, each meaningful, each worthy of praise. However, the whole is not as strong as its parts.

The two tales, each skillfully and gracefully told, are decidedly separate stories.

More troubling is the omission of the larger story that helped bring the OSI into existence and energized its mission. The decades of official inaction in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in this country was deliberate. The dirty little secret behind why America had become a safe haven for the murderers of World War II and their willing accomplices was that many of the suspects had been brought here by the military or the C.I.A., and had continued to be employed as scientists or intelligence assets by the Agency and the F.B.I. despite the government’s knowledge of their war crimes.

I first provided the broad (and admittedly inchoate) outline of this cover-up in 1977, when I published Wanted!: The Search for Nazis in America. Then, 37 years later, in 2014, the New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau carefully connected all the incriminating dots in his The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men, quoting extensively from declassified intelligence agency files that documented the government’s complicity in harboring Nazis in the U.S. The Trawniki soldiers who march ominously through Ms. Cenziper’s tale were able to hide unnoticed for decades in America in part because of this perverse policy of institutional complacency. The guilty spymasters feared that if prosecutors were to pull a single string, a ball of official secrets would unravel. Ms. Cenziper’s account would have been stronger had she worked in this crucial element.

Yet despite these flaws, Citizen 865 is an important book, and its far-reaching value is reinforced in its final paragraphs. In 2010 the OSI merged with the Justice Department’s Human Rights and Special Prosecution Section. The unit’s extended mandate was to prosecute human-rights violators who participated in genocide, torture, or war crimes in conflicts around the world and then covertly found refuge in America. It would bring to justice killers from Bosnia, Serbia, Rwanda, and Darfur. And this is the heuristic lesson of World War II that tacitly runs through this stirring book, filling it with a power that lingers—“Never Again!” is a timeless call to action.

Howard Blum is the author of several books, including, most recently, Night of the Assassins, excerpted in AIR MAIL