On January 27, the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day to coincide with the date when the largest German death camp, Auschwitz, was liberated. Monday’s anniversary of the 75th year since Auschwitz’s liberation comes at a time the world is witnessing increasing and multifaceted antisemitic hatred as well as a tendency towards forgetting the dark and complex period of the Holocaust.
At such a crucial juncture, Debbie Cenziper’s sophomore effort, Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America, released by Hachette Books in November 2019, is of vital importance. Deftly weaving together elements of World War II history with the personal stories of Jewish survivors and Nazi collaborators, Cenziper also highlights the exhaustive efforts of the men and women of the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI). OSI was charged with rooting out war criminals masquerading as innocent American émigrés between OSI’s inception in 1979 and its 2010 merger with a DOJ unit focused on modern war criminals.
Fast-paced, well-researched, and rife with touching human details, Citizen 865 is a rarity: a thrilling work of historical nonfiction that readers will struggle to put down.
Heroes and Villians
Cenziper’s careful recounting of the incredible survival of Polish Jews Feliks Wojcik and Lucyna Stryjewska reminds readers of the individual toll the Holocaust took on European Jews. After losing their parents and Feliks’ sister to the ruthless Nazi liquidation of the Lublin ghetto and the Majdanek concentration camp, Feliks and Lucyna, with Lucyna’s brother David, sneak into the Warsaw ghetto, where Feliks and Lucyna are married. Prior to the incineration of the Warsaw ghetto, Lucyna acquires a fake identity that allows her to move to the Aryan section of Warsaw, where David and Feliks hide behind a false wall in her apartment.
After responding to a German call to send remaining Jewish children to Sweden, Lucyna discovers that she has been fooled into shipping David, her last surviving family member, to a German concentration camp. Every loss the Wojciks experience reminds readers that, for each Jew who miraculously survived the Nazi regime, there were many — around six million — who did not. Even the Wojciks’ creation of a new life in America, while inspirational, is tinged with the devastation of the losses they have experienced.
The undisputed heroes of Citizen 865 are the prosecutors and historians of the OSI. A host of obstacles impeded OSI staffers’ efforts to bring justice to naturalized war criminals, including the difficulties in obtaining vital historical documents hidden behind the Iron Curtain, American politicians and judges who lambasted OSI for prosecuting old men with dark secrets, émigré groups that sought to subvert OSI cases, and countries that refused to honor post-war agreements to repatriate war criminals. In spite of these obstacles, the men and women of OSI went to incredible lengths to pursue facts and secure justice for the survivors, as well as the often nameless victims, of the Holocaust.
Central to Citizen 865, and to many of OSI’s successes, is former historian Peter Black, whose decades-long assembly of the previously unknown history of a Schutzstaffel (SS) training camp in Trawniki, Poland ultimately unraveled the fake histories put forward by numerous U.S. citizens who immigrated to America under false pretenses. Only through a careful record of that history was Black able to discover that the story’s central antagonist, Jakob Reimer, was not a Trawniki interpreter and paymaster as he claimed, but one of the “foot soldiers of the Final Solution.”
The story of the aging collaborator is relayed faithfully. Cenziper describes former SS-Oberzugwachmann Reimer as a “seventy-three-year-old retired potato chip salesman who had once vowed to bring Nazi racial order to the occupied East,” as well as “a husband, father, and grandfather” whose “life…had also been tragic.” Like so many who were complicit in the mass murder of Jews by the Germans, Reimer was an ordinary man who committed extraordinarily terrible deeds.
Cenziper has offered readers moments of vindication with her portrayal of Reimer’s story. Chief among these is her description of Reimer fleeing, “ditch[ing] his Trawniki uniform, slip[ing] into civilian clothes, and ma[king] his way south and west toward Munich,” as Soviet forces approached Trawniki.
There is poetic justice in knowing that, henceforth, it is a Nazi war criminal, rather than a Jewish civilian, whose “life depended on his ability to keep his identity a secret.” For decades, Reimer’s lies are sufficient, but readers are likely to sense relief as Reimer’s false past disintegrates under questioning by knowledgable OSI prosecutors. The resolution of OSI’s case against Reimer, however, may render more complex emotions.
An indispensable aspect of Cenziper’s accounting of these crucial stories is her meticulous attention to the personal lives of OSI staff, especially to the emotional results of fixating on genocide, and the “dark little details that wouldn’t fade away, that clawed back into the light and settled there, stubbornly, even after jokes or drinks or time away with family.”
One passage about an exchange between OSI prosecutor Ned Stutman and expert OSI witness Charlie Sydnor during Reimer’s trial is especially poignant:
Stutman went on. ‘Do you think that a father standing there, holding his infant, in his last thoughts, could he have imagined that one day there would be somebody who would try to effect justice or retribution?’
Sydnor imagined the ravine filled with parents, children, grandparents, stripped of their dignity and about to die in a hole in the ground. Sydnor wanted to comfort his colleague, to come up with a way to make sense of it all, but he couldn’t find the words.
Instead he stammered, ‘I can’t imagine, Ned.’
Cenziper’s work offers her readers little respite from the past and present realities of genocide. This is indisputably the book’s best feature. In order to honor that history of organized mass murder, we modern observers need to be broken apart by it.
Citizen 865 is an all-too-timely reminder of the Holocaust’s vast death count, the personal losses of individual survivors, the normalcy of those who participated in the wholesale slaughter of humans, and the strength required of those who have felt compelled, in a world preoccupied with modern grievances, to rectify a historic wrong. In the midst of this incredible darkness, Cenziper has held up OSI historians and prosecutors as a necessary example that righteous humans, equipped with history, persistence, and morality, can triumph over evil.
Beautifully human, devoted to detail, and thoroughly enthralling, Citizen 865 has arrived at the crucial moment when the world is actively forgetting its promise to “Never Again” allow antisemitism to take root in our societies. Cenziper has written a book with the power to compel its readers to honor the Holocaust’s devastating history by devoting ourselves anew to that promise of old.