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June 23, 2014

Call for justice interrupts former Nazi guard's quiet life

He didn’t run, he didn’t disappear. The former Nazi lived peacefully in a Philadelphia row house, sometimes feeding treats to his neighbor’s dog.

Johann Breyer’s true identity had stopped being a secret decades ago, at least to the U.S. government and the dwindling number of Nazi hunters who knew his name.

As a young man, Breyer had been an SS guard at Auschwitz, where the Nazis killed more than a million victims, the vast majority of them Jews. He’d worn the skull-and-crossbones insignia of the “Death’s Head” guard battalion to which he belonged, according to court records, but said he never hurt anyone.

In 1952, Breyer came to the U.S. to build a new life. For almost seven decades after the war, he did not face a criminal trial. But his quiet American retirement ended Tuesday, when U.S. Marshals arrested him at home.

Now 89, Breyer faces extradition to Germany, where he is accused of complicity in the deaths of 216,000 Jewish men, women and children who died at the Auschwitz complex in Nazi-occupied Poland while he was there, prosecutors said. (Overall, an estimated 11 million people were killed in the Holocaust, 6 million of them Jews.)

A hearing will be held before a U.S. magistrate in August. Breyer’s attorney did not return messages seeking comment.

A neighbor of 20 years said Breyer was an unlikely war criminal.

“He didn’t seem like what history says a Nazi should be like,” Ken Perkins said. “He just seemed like an ordinary person who wasn’t hiding anything.”

Perkins said rumors had floated around the neighborhood about Breyer’s past for years, but he had given them little thought.

“We never got into his life or what he did,” said Perkins, whose backyard faces Breyer’s. “I don’t condone what they’re accusing him of, if he did it. But personally, through my experience, he seemed like a nice guy.”

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