A 95-year-old German native who fought U.S. efforts to be removed for his wartime service as a concentration camp guard has been deported, the U.S. Department of Justice said Saturday.
Friedrich Karl "Fritz" Berger of Oak Ridge lost a bid before the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati to stay a federal immigration judge's order and an immigration board order that he be sent back to his native country.
He will live in an assisted living center in Germany. The Associated Press reported that German authorities confirmed Berger arrived Saturday at Frankfurt and was handed over to Hesse state investigators for questioning.
The DOJ wanted Berger out, arguing he took part in persecuting Nazi prisoners at a Meppen, Germany, sub-camp in March 1945 and also was part of a forced evacuation of prisoners in the waning days of World War II.
“Berger’s removal demonstrates the Department of Justice’s and its law enforcement partners’ commitment to ensuring that the United States is not a safe haven for those who have participated in Nazi crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses,” said Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson said in Saturday's release.
WANING DAYS OF THE WAR
Berger himself was not a Nazi. He was a member of the German Navy, dispatched as a 19-year-old to help guard prisoners in the Neuengamme concentration camp system that was based in Hamburg.
He was among a group of Navy guards ordered to keep watch over prisoners as they came and went in the Meppen work camp near the Dutch border. Meppen had two subcamps.
The Nazis cleared the camp out in late March as Allies advanced toward Germany, forcing the prisoners to walk or go by train over two weeks to the main Neuengamme hub, records show.
Dozens died during the evacuation, according to the U.S. government.
Berger was captured in a German forest in April 1945. The Nazi commander of the Meppen camp escaped.
Berger was held a prisoner of the British until Christmas Eve 1945, after which he was freed and went to work in post-war Germany on behalf of the British, records show.
In 1956, he emigrated to Canada. In 1959, he was allowed to move with his family to the United States, records show.
Berger settled in Oak Ridge. In a brief conversation last year with WBIR, he declined to comment on the DOJ's efforts.
He leaves behind a daughter in the Oak Ridge area who had been looking after him.
Knoxville attorney Hugh Ward of the Young, Williams & Ward firm worked for months to allow his client to stay in America. Ward argued Berger never was a Nazi, never harmed anyone and hardly knew how to use the gun he was issued.
He also insisted at age 95 that Berger was frail and suffered heart problems. A forced move back to Germany would endanger his health, especially amid the international pandemic, Ward argued.
The appellate court was unswayed.
A three-judge panel ruled Feb. 11 it had heard enough to convince it that the immigration judge's order should prevail and Berger should go. The DOJ sought to remove him under a federal law it has used to force out people who took part in committing persecution during Adolf Hitler's terrible reign in Germany.
Berger is the 70th such "persecutor" removed from the U.S., according to the DOJ.
Eli Rosenbaum, former director of the U.S. DOJ Office of Special Investigations, told WBIR last year Berger likely is the last of his kind to face deportation from America.
Technically, Berger's appeals efforts are ongoing.
Ward filed an appeals motion earlier this month citing reasons why the judge's order and a federal immigration board confirmation order should be stayed. The government had a March deadline to respond.
But Judges Martha Craig Daughtrey, David McKeague and Amul Thapar decided they'd heard enough.
While "Berger requests that we defer ruling on the motion until the case is fully briefed, the administrative record is lengthy and the parties fully briefed the relevant issues below.
"Thus, no harm will result from ruling on the motion prior to the completion of briefing," their ruling states.
The court said it didn't find that Berger's health was in danger.
"Based on Berger’s current medical records, his conditions are being treated, they are not immediately life threatening, and there is no indication he cannot be treated upon removal. Further, the Acting Attorney General represents that the government will follow the procedures for removing those with medical issues. Under these circumstances, Berger has not shown that his alleged harms rise to the level of irreparable harm."
The judges said they were convinced that Berger met a federal test when it came to persecution of innocent people during the war.
"There was ample documentary evidence that numerous prisoners died while Berger was stationed there, and that prisoners were shot and killed during attempted escapes. Berger’s military records place him at the Meppen subcamps at the same time as another naval man, whose account suggests that guards knew of atrocities occurring at Meppen," the court wrote.
After the war, the Allies focused on finding and prosecuting the Nazis who executed Hitler's efforts to control Europe and exterminate populations, including Jews, it deemed undesirable.
Thousands of German military personnel quietly faded back into society.
Berger's war records were among papers recovered years later when a sunken German cargo steamship called the Thielbek was salvaged in 1949. British RAF bombers sunk the Thielbek in May 1945 in the Bay of Lubeck off the Baltic Sea.
More than 2,700 on board died. Many were Neuengamme system prisoners of war put on the ship by the Nazis as the Allies closed in, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Berger has continued to draw a German pension, in part for his wartime service, according to the DOJ.