Auschwitz Guard Johann "Hans" Breyer Has Been Arrested, Finally

Ostensibly, Johann "Hans" Breyer enjoyed a relatively low-key existence. He came to the United States in 1951, found work as a tool and die maker, had three kids, and retired at the age of 66. But the life he left behind in Germany held something more sinister. Now, the 89-year-old Breyer will answer for it, facing charges for his role in the murder of 216,000 Jews. Breyer served as a sentinel at Auschwitz, the Nazi's most infamous death camp, in 1944 — but he claims he had no clue what was going on inside of the gates, where millions of Jews were systematically murdered.

What we do know, however, is that he is one of the oldest surviving members of the "Death's Head" Nazi battalion. Whatever space or mental block Breyer managed to create for himself after he arrived in the U.S. all fell apart when he was arrested this week. He entered the courtroom on Wednesday, carrying a cane and decked in purple inmate garb, where the prosecution slapped him with 158 counts of "complicity in the commission of murder," one for each train of Jewish men and women led to slaughter in Auschwitz between May and October 1944.

The arrest came a year after German courts charged Breyer and requested his extradition to face trial. If the extradition goes through, Breyer will be the oldest living person to be extradited from the U.S. to face Nazi crimes. For many years, Nazis lived in the U.S. without fear of retribution for the WWII-era crimes. But the courts have prosecuted 130 Nazi suspects in the last 35 years after Congress pushed to see the crimes answered for.

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Litigating aging Nazis is still controversial, though, and Breyer's arrest only reignites the debate. Opponents argue that prosecuting a crime seven decades past is fruitless. But, lest we forget, he may be a war criminal. The Justice Department sees my side of things.

“The fact that this guy got away with what he did for so long doesn’t mean that he should continue to get away with it,” Neal Sher, the former director of the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting office, told The New York Times . “These are unparalleled crimes that have no statute of limitations.”