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Deported Nazi lived near Holocaust survivor in East Tennessee neighborhood

A group of American investigators with the nickname ‘Nazi Hunters’ may have its last case, and it’s in East Tennessee’s backyard.
Published: Feb. 22, 2021 at 7:24 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 24, 2021 at 11:20 AM EST
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - A group of American investigators with the nickname ‘Nazi Hunters’ may have its last case, and it’s in East Tennessee’s backyard.

A 95-year-old, who until last week, lived in Oak Ridge admitted he was a guard at a Nazi labor camp. He said, however, that he did nothing wrong. Officials say Friedrich Karl Berger served at the Neuengamme Concentration Camp system. According to the Washington Post, “In 1945, as British and Canadian forces approached the subcamp, Berger helped guard prisoners forced to evacuate to the main camp, Justice Department officials have said. During the brutal two-week trek, 70 prisoners died.”

The Board of Immigration Appeals upheld a Memphis, Tennessee, Immigration Judge’s Feb. 28, 2020, decision that Berger was removable under the 1978 Holtzman Amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act because his “willing service as an armed guard of prisoners at a concentration camp where persecution took place” constituted assistance in Nazi-sponsored persecution.

Berger’s former East Tennessee neighbors included a Holocaust survivor, as well as a rabbi who is working to keep her memory alive.

WVLT News visited the Oak Ridge neighborhood in the fall of 2020, but no one came to Berger’s door. Neighbors, like Rabbi Alon Ferency, did speak.

“Having had family who escaped the German onslaught. I don’t know. There’s value to remembering. But is there value to holding onto resentment?” he said.

Berger and his family lived in America for 61 years. What both he and the US government can agree on is this: he was a Nazi guard at the Neuengamme Camp, where prisoners, among those which were “Jews, Poles, Russians, Danes, Dutch, Latvians, French, Italians, and political opponents,” died.

Berger said the case pursued by the Department of Justice’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions team was “all lies” in a phone interview WVLT News had with him in 2020. His attorney, Hugh Ward, provided WVLT News with public testimony after the Memphis judge denied Berger’s final appeal.

“It’s all lies. It’s all lies what the government is saying about me,” he told WVLT News.

Assistant US Attorney General Brian Rabbitt says in a statement, “Berger’s willing service as an armed guard at a Nazi concentration camp cannot be erased and will not be ignored.”

Rabbi Ferency, to that point, told WVLT News, “The misdeeds that someone does when they’re 19 or 27 are not the person that is at 40 or 60.”

In sworn testimony, Berger claims he: “joined the Navy to avoid combat and was therefore able to avoid deployment to combat.” He said that he was never given a gun to watch the Jewish, Russian and Roma prisoners due to a training accident. He was not personally accused of assaulting, beating or killing any prisoners.

Ferency said he wishes his friend, and their joint neighbor, Auschwitz survivor Mira Kimmelman could’ve met Berger. It’s believed the two never met. Ferency said, “I can imagine her, so many decades later, being curious about the other experience.”

Kimmelman spoke with WVLT News shortly before she died. She wrote two books about her life in the concentration camp, saying, “I wanted something for my children to have, to remember.”

She added that in living in the camp “you lived in the shadow of death.”

The United States Department of Justice said simply following orders from authority was no excuse for Fritz Berger.

“Berger was an active participant in one of the darkest chapters in human history. He attempted to shed his nefarious past to come to America and start anew.”

Berger said that is not true, as he retained his identity and continued to collect a pension from Germany. He said, “I was just a guard. I am not SS.”

Ferency said, “It’s hard not to forgive someone in their 90s. We should be allowed to make, repair amends. In Hebrew, we call that ‘Tshuva,’ sort of a returning, a repair.”

Berger was sent back to Germany on a special deportation flight. When he landed in Germany, he was met by German police, who had some questions.

Rabbi Ferency said he hopes Berger has atoned himself inside.

“When I think about the position of this gentleman in Oak Ridge. I doubt I would have been, if our positions had switched, I doubt I would have been any better.”

WVLT News reached out to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to learn more about tracking down war criminals and collaborators. Because of the advanced age of those in World War II, Berger’s might be among the last of these prosecutions. The DOJ’s team has prosecuted 109 people. It has refused to return comment on the case.

The 70 people who died in the Neuengamme Concentration Camp death march were a small sliver of the millions who died due to the Nazi regime.

You can learn more about the Holocaust from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here.

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