Whether They Are Bishops or Pawns, Federal Prosecutor Allan Ryan Checkmates Ex-Nazis in the U.S.

updated 12/13/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/13/1982 01:00AM

In West Palm Beach, Fla., the courtroom darkened and the broad face of Josef-Waclaw Jablonski, then 55, appeared on three video screens. In a voice cracking under the pain of grotesque memories, Jablonski recalled a scene from the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine in 1943. "...I saw Koziy holding this girl by her hand and the girl was crying and she was pleading, saying that she wanted to go to her mother. Then Koziy took out a pistol and shot the girl...."

Until the U.S. government tracked him down 40 years later, Ukrainian immigrant Bohdan Koziy, 59, was prospering in America as the owner of a Florida motel. But Allan A. Ryan Jr. and his staff at the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations discovered witnesses who exposed Koziy's dark history with the Nazi-run Ukrainian police. Ryan's researchers found Jablonski, now a construction manager in Bydgoszcz, Poland, and taped his testimony in a Warsaw courthouse. On March 29, after the tape was played in West Palm Beach, Koziy was stripped of his American citizenship (a decision he is now appealing) and Ryan was pleased. "We are saying, at long last, that these people should not be here," Ryan says. "For these murderers to sneak into the U.S., lie low and live ordinary lives is repulsive. Whenever citizenship is revoked in these cases, the value and honor of U.S. citizenship is, in some small degree, elevated."

For the past three years Allan Ryan has fought to elevate the value of that citizenship. This month he will face some of his most difficult tests. Besides opposing the Koziy appeal, he will soon argue in Florida for the denaturalization of Kazys Palciauskas, an ex-mayor of Kaunas, Lithuania, who is accused of herding the city's Jews into a ghetto. Soon after, he will present a case in Chicago against Hans Lipschis, accused of being a functionary at the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps. Not surprisingly, Ryan's crusade, which has exposed and denaturalized nine Nazi war criminals, has earned him enmity in certain circles. He receives some 20 hate letters a month. One came bearing a copy of a neo-Nazi newspaper that denounced "the renegade Ryan" for using "Communist secret police terror tactics." (Ryan is un-intimidated by the threats, but prudently does not give out the location of the new home he shares with wife Nancy, 33, and their children, Elizabeth, 2, and Andrew, 9 months.) Of course, the 37-year-old lawyer has also been enthusiastically praised for his laborious investigations of crimes committed before he was born. Famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal terms him "a man of justice." Former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, who once criticized the federal government for its lack of zeal in chasing fugitive Nazis, agrees. "He has helped to undo a black chapter in this country's history," she says, "and I think all Americans owe him a debt of gratitude." Ryan ignores the attacks and rejects many of the accolades. "Don't call me a Nazi hunter," he says. "I am a federal prosecutor under the laws of the United States. We investigate what happened and bring cases against people who broke the law. It's not glamorous."

It can, in fact, be quite tedious. Ryan's pursuit of war criminals involves little high adventure and lots of digging through yellowing Nazi records in musty archives. Although the OSI sometimes works on tips from informers, most of the cases begin when Ryan's staff of 50 investigators and lawyers matches a name from German lists of SS men and concentration camp guards with American immigration records. After determining that a suspect still lives in the U.S., Ryan's researchers dig for information in German military records and American government documents, affidavits of Holocaust survivors and communiques from government Nazi hunters in Moscow, Warsaw or Prague. Slowly, a picture of guilt or innocence emerges (of the 581 suspects investigated, 348 have been cleared). Then the OSI investigators interview witnesses in the United States, Israel, South America, Australia and Eastern Europe. "It's tedious, but it's the stuff you have to do," Ryan says. "When you find the piece of paper that makes your case, that's the payoff."

In one case, which has not yet come to trial, the incriminating paper is an individual's signed request for more bullets "because I used the last six to kill Jews." Ryan savors that grisly document. "Beautiful," he growls. "Nail that sucker on that evidence." Equally consistent with Ryan's vision of a just America is his willingness to drop a case with slim evidence. On the phone to Wiesenthal he is overheard saying, "Yes, Simon, she's a thoroughly repugnant woman, but we can't show..."

Unlike most professional Nazi hunters, Ryan is not Jewish. Born a Catholic, he came to this cause almost by accident. After growing up in Cambridge, Mass., he majored in government at Dartmouth and earned a law degree at the University of Minnesota. In 1970 he won the coveted post of clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White. "That was, without question, the formative experience of my legal career," he says. It was also a springboard for Ryan's rapid rise into the ranks of Washington superlawyers. After a stint at the firm of Williams, Connolly and Califano, he moved to the Office of the Solicitor General, which argues the government's cases before the Supreme Court. Ryan won seven of his eight appearances before the high court—as well as a Court of Appeals trial that began his career as a prosecutor of Nazis.

That was The United States v. Fedorenko. Feodor Fedorenko was a Ukrainian immigrant accused by the Immigration and Naturalization Service of having committed atrocities at the Treblinka death camp. A Florida district court judge ruled in Fedorenko's favor. Reviewing the 1978 case for the Solicitor General, Ryan became incensed. "I knew zero about Nazi war criminals at the time," he recalls, "but this was a terrible injustice. The government simply had to go in, whether we were going to win or not." Under Ryan's command, the government did win an appeal by arguing that Fedorenko's citizenship was obtained through perjury, when he lied about his wartime occupation, and was therefore invalid. That line of reasoning was later upheld by the Supreme Court and now serves as the basis of most of Ryan's cases against alleged war criminals. Fedorenko is now living in Philadelphia, collecting Social Security and awaiting a deportation decision.

Ryan's victory in the Fedorenko case led to his January 1980 appointment to the Office of Special Investigations, for which Congress had set aside funds in 1978 and which now operates on a $2.5 million annual budget. His appointment was a controversial one. Ryan replaced an experienced Jewish official, and there was doubt that a Boston Irishman would bring sufficient passion to the job. He soon silenced the skeptics. In early 1980 Ryan was part of a team that traveled to Moscow and convinced the Soviet government to allow OSI prosecutors to videotape the testimony of Russian survivors of the Nazi era. "A lot of people were holding their breath to see what would happen in Moscow," Ryan recalls. "We would have been very hard-pressed to win without Soviet testimony."

Aided by the dramatic videotapes, the OSI has won 11 victories in cases against Nazi collaborators. The most important of Ryan's targets was Michigan-based Archbishop Valerian Trifa, head of the Rumanian Orthodox Episcopate in America. The OSI charged that Archbishop Trifa had belonged to a Rumanian fascist group called the Iron Guard and had incited anti-Semitic rioting that killed 300 in Bucharest in 1941. Last October, already denaturalized, Trifa agreed to accept deportation and is expected to leave the country within a year.

"You look at these cases and see what these people did and there is a tremendous amount of satisfaction in prosecuting them," Ryan says. "Whether we denaturalize or deport five or 15 Nazi criminals may not change history, but it demonstrates that the United States is unwilling to tolerate these people in our midst."

Within five years, Ryan estimates, the OSI will complete its work and dissolve. At that point he will return to private law practice. Meanwhile his skill and integrity as a prosecutor have earned him paeans from his peers. He proudly recalls a speech last March by Gideon Hausner, the Israeli who prosecuted Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem 20 years ago. "During his speech, Hausner referred to me and he said, 'Ryan is in the great tradition of seekers of American justice.' I don't think anybody has ever said anything about me that has pleased me more."

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