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From the Vault: The United States of America v. Frank Walus

Forty years ago, a Polish immigrant stood accused of heinous war crimes in a trial that couldn’t stay focused on him.

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Photo: Martha Williams

One of the first cases the U.S. brought against an alleged Nazi war criminal was that of Frank Walus, a retired Chicago autoworker. Held here in 1978, the trial stirred massive interest and sensational coverage. “Nazi Jew Killer Living on SW Side?” asked a Chicago Daily News headline.

In the courtroom, 12 witnesses recounted stories of Walus brutally murdering civilians in occupied Poland as a member of the Gestapo. Walus countered that he was a forced farm laborer in Germany during the war and produced corroborating testimony. The judge found Walus guilty and revoked his citizenship. The adjudication, though, wrote Lowell Komie in his 1978 Chicago story “The United States of America v. Frank Walus,” had little to do with Walus.

The defendant took on almost a demonic quality, but the trial focused on the political system of organized genocide that had created the man on trial. Walus, twitching in his blue suit, and Judge Julius Hoffman, hunched down in his black robe, became minor figures. What really came on trial in Chicago in Judge Hoffman’s courtroom was the Germany of World War Two.

In 1980, an appellate court came to a similar conclusion and ordered the case retried. The original judge had failed to consider, for example, that Walus’s height, age, and nationality would have barred him from serving in the Gestapo. The government dropped the charges and reinstated Walus’s citizenship. Still, he remained a villain to many and was attacked several times before his death in 1994.

Read the full story below.

 

The United States v. Frank Walus

The problems of putting World War Two Germany on trial in 1978

In the World War Two–era photograph introduced at the trial, Frank Walus was a thin Polish boy, blond and sparrow-faced. He looked like an adolescent, perhaps 13 or 14 years old, and showed no signs of being an eager murderer.

In 1978, at the defense table with his two lawyers, the 55-year-old Walus wore his iron-gray hair closely cropped in a crew cut. By now, he was a retired assembler of diesel engines, a naturalized American citizen living on an accident pension on the Southwest Side. He was accused of having been a member of the Gestapo and of concealing that fact on his application for alien residency. He was also accused of acts of murder, but this was not a murder trial. It was a civil case, a denaturalization proceeding to revoke his citizenship; and, in the sometimes perplexing logic of law, evidence of murder was being used only to establish his membership in the Gestapo.

The defendant sat with military bearing, his hands calmly folded in front of him. But there were some signs of the strain of all this after so long a time. Often Walus’s eyes would blink, and a paroxysm of twitching would contort his face. He would overcome it by wiping at his face with his hands or quickly crossing his legs, shifting positions. At other times, he would sniff, blink his eyes rapidly, inspect his inside jacket pockets — left, then right — shrug his shoulders, sniff again, and refold his hands. He sat neither quietly nor stolidy; he was a nervous, active defendant. Occasionally he would stare at the spectators, and if you could catch those deep-set, dark eyes for moment, you could gauge for yourself whether or not there was madness in them. It was impossible, though, to maintain eye contact with him, for eyes were constantly moving. There was a sense of darkness about the man. Perhaps it was from having no soul, or perhaps it was from understandable furtiveness of a frightened, persecuted immigrant. Whatever it was — this shifting interior darkness — you could not lock into it, as the Israeli witness had, and point to Walus as a killer.

Most of the 11 survivor-witnesses spoke in Polish through an interpreter. Sara Leichter, when asked to identify Walus, came down from the witness stand, pointed to him, and said, ‘Here is the murderer.” Another, Anna Kremski, when asked how she could remember his face after 35 years, replied that she would always remember “the madness in his eyes.”

The witnesses had been residents of the towns of Czestochowa and Kielce in southern Poland from 1939 to 1943. Several of them testified that Walus was indeed a member of the Gestapo. Witness Sara Leichter told of Walus leading a group of Jewish children, ages four to nine, into a building in Kielce early in the war. Once they were inside, Mrs. Leichter heard shots and screaming. She never saw the children again. Other witnesses testified that Walus beat an adult prisoner to death with an iron bar in the courtyard of Gestapo headquarters, that he shot a lawyer in the back after he had permitted him to leave interrogation, that he shot a woman in the head as she was leaving a hospital in Czestochowa, and, when he child bent over her, he also shot the child in the head. Walus was also accused by Israeli witnesses of shooting a Polish partisan, of killing an old woman, of killing a hunchback and another young man, and of savagely beating the father of one of the witnesses. Further, he was identified by Anna Kremski as the man with a gun who burst into her apartment early one morning and threatened to shoot her sleeping husband. She pleaded for her husband’s life, and the gunman ran out of her apartment and into another apartment; there he shot a man who was sleeping.

“The courtroom is full of blood,” a woman from Jerusalem said. She had been at the trial each day as a spectator, sitting in the second row with her arms folded, staring at Walus. “There is no question of his guilt. This man is a murderer. How can his wife sleep with him? There is blood all over him.”

Walus also testified in Polish, through an interpreter, although he speaks English well, with a high voice in a slightly lisping cadence. He presented an alibi defense. His evidence was intended to show that at the time he was accused of being a Gestapo killer, he was employed as a laborer on German farms in Bavaria more than 500 miles away. He claimed that he was taken by the Germans in 1939 from his village in Poland and was put to work as a forced laborer in the towns of Bubenhausen, Wullenstetten, and Kleinkotz in Bavaria. He testified that he was 17 when he was first sent to the German farms and that he spent the entire period from 1939 to 1945 as Polish farm laborer working for the Germans. He insisted that he had never been a member of the Gestapo. On questioning, by his attorney, Robert Korenkiewicz:

“Were you ever a member of the Gestapo?”

“No.”

“Did you ever wear a Gestapo uniform?”

“No, I never saw such a uniform.”

“Were you ever a member of the Germany army?”

“No.”

“Did you ever commit crimes against civilians in the Polish towns of Kielce or Czestochowa?”

“No.”

A Chicago man, Michael Alper, a Polish refugee whom Walus had taken into his home as a roomer, testified as a government witness and contradicted him. Alper said that Walus had bragged to him about his Gestapo membership. Unknown to Walus, his young roomer was a Polish Jew who had lost both parents in concentration camps. At the trial, Walus claimed that Alper went to the government out of pique over an argument with Walus. But Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi hunter from Vienna, who was in Chicago at the time of the trial, said he had told the government about Walus long before the young Jewish tenant had come forward.

Walus also offered the testimony of four German farmers whom he flown to the United States. They testified that Walus had worked as a laborer on their farms from 1939 to 1945, contradicting the government allegations. Anton Stolz said that he was 12 when Walus first came to the Stolz farm in the spring of 1941. He remembered Walus as a skinny 18-year-old who wasn’t really strong enough for farm chores. He said Walus was turned back to the authorities a year later by Stolz’s father, who wanted a stronger worker. Maria Zeller said Walus was a worker on the Zeller farm in 1940, but strong enough; he was turned back to the local office for forced labor in the spring of 1941. Margarete Goelz remembered Walus as a young worker on her family farm, saying that he worked for a short period in 1942 but returned often until 1945 to visit her daughter. On the day of her court appearance, Mrs. Goelz had a heart seizure outside the courtroom and was attended by a squad of paramedics. Wally Welte testified that young Walus had worked on the Welte farm in Wullenstetten from 1942 to 1945 while her husband was away in the German army. Several of these witnesses admitted on cross-examination that persons in their families, either husbands or fathers, had been members of the Nazi party. They also admitted on cross-examination that, when previously interviewed by a reporter from the Chicago Daily News in Europe, they had said that Walus worked for them only from the end of 1942 to 1944, too late in the war to account for earlier activities.

Photographs were introduced into evidence, the one that showed Walus as a skinny young man, standing with Anton Stolz, as well as others that showed Walus in various uniforms of the Allied forces. These photographs were intended to prove that he served as a member of the Polish Army in Exile (a unit of Britain’s Eighth Army) and of the Polish Civil Guard after he was freed from forced labor by the Allied armies in 1945. He alleged that in April 1946 he left the British unit and joined the Polish Civil Guard as a guard at U.S. bases near Regensburg.

 

Testimony of the New Germany

At his trial, Frank Walus, accused of more than a dozen brutal murders, always wore a tiny American-flag pin in his lapel. He is a very short man, he walked briskly into the courtroom, legs slightly bowed, almost like a tiny quarterback rushing confidently back to the huddle. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt first used the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the functionaries of the Gestapo apparatus. This man in the courtroom with his American-flag pin and neat light-blue suit, his chain flexible-band wristwatch, always neatly dressed, polite, covering yawns with his hand — this surely was an ordinary man. His wife accompanied him each day in her cloth coat, her light-brown hair freshly done in ringlets. She had an open, guileless face. She would wave, a little flutter wave, to friends from the neighborhood as she and Walus came from the rear of the courtroom. Walus would hitch his trousers as he sat down. Occasionally he’d nod at friends.

But the real difficulty of the Walus case had little to do with the banality or the evil of the defendant. The difficulty is the inability of a judicial system supposedly based on rationality to deal with a defendant who was accused of being part of an apparatus of mass murder or genocide. After all, a court of justice is intended to be the most rational of human forms, a theatre of logic in which evidence of human conduct can be minutely weighed and assessed by the traditional legal methodology. But because of the enormity of the issues immediately behind the issue of denaturalization, this courtroom became almost a theatre of the absurd. The defendant took on almost a demonic quality, but the trial focused on the political system of organized genocide that had created the man on trial. Walus, twitching in his blue suit, and Judge Julius Hoffman, hunched down in his black robe, became minor figures. What really came on trial in Chicago in Judge Hoffman’s court courtroom was the Germany of World War Two.

The government’s examination of defense witness Wilhelm Rehle is a case in point. Wilhelm Rehle is a young German bureaucrat, born in 1940. He is employed by the AOK (he pronounces it Ah Oh Kah), a health-insurance union of the German government. On the day of his appearance, he brings with him a series of cards to show that the farmers who employed Walus paid health-insurance premiums for him from 1940 to 1945. Rehle has ruddy cheeks and a scissored haircut and wears a beige-corduroy sports jacket. Here is a German of a new generation. He testifies through an interpreter, mostly with his head tilted to one side, often with his eyes closed, carefully choosing his words.

The government decides to treat Rehle other than as a record keeper. One of the government attorneys, William Conlon, chief of the Civil Division, perhaps the same age as Rehle, cross-examines him. Even after a week of trial, Conlon, in a black pinstripe suit and wire-rimmed glasses, is still fresh-faced, eager, quickly probing.

“Mr. Rehle,” Conlon asks, “are you aware of the fact that during the period 1939 to 1943, approximately 2.5 million Poles were sent to Germany as forced laborers and that by the end of September 1944 approximately 7.5 million civilian foreigners were performing forced labor in Germany?” (The interpreter’s sudden infusion of the German language further separates the prosecutor and the witness. The word “Deutschland” is heard for the first time.)

Robert Korenkiewicz, Walus’s attorney, objects to the relevancy of Conlon’s question: “He is not an expert on how many millions of people were brought to Germany as forced persons — slave laborers. He is here to talk about the German social health-insurance program and whether or not certain records were also kept by that firm.” Korenkiewicz is also about the same age as Rehle. He, too, is vigorous, a tall, thin man with glasses, confidently pressing his defense, unafraid of Judge Hoffman’s sarcasm. Rehle is an important witness. He would have no reason to bring false records into an American courtroom, and Korenkiewicz doesn’t want his testimony politicized.

Conlon: “The witness’s knowledge or lack of knowledge of forced laborers goes to credibility.”

Judge Hoffman: “He will be allowed to answer over the objection.” Hoffman looks like an ancient gnome reciting the lines Charles Laughton said as Captain Bligh.

Walus drums his fingers on the table.

The interpreter is asked to repeat the question. He is a florid-faced man, professorial, sitting up high on a cocktail stool. “The question is too long. It should be repeated in segments,” he says to Conlon.

Conlon (speaking slowly and segmenting the question): “Mr. Rehle, are you aware of the fact…that during the period 1939 to 1943 … approximately 2.5 million Poles were sent to Germany as forced laborers … that by the end of September 1944, approximately 7.5 million civilian foreigners were performing forced labor in Germany?”

Rehle’s head is still tilted, eyes partly closed; now he taps his ledger cards on his knees. “No,” he says in English, and then repeats himself in German: “Nein.

Korenkiewicz: “Objection, Your Honor. There is no foundation for this witness being an expert in foreign labor in Germany during the war…”

Rehle: “I cannot answer to this question because I have not interested myself in this matter.”

Conlon: “… Mr. Rehle, are you aware of the fact that the Gestapo and the SS were active in the administration of the slave-labor program in Germany during the years 1940 through 1945?” (The word “Gestapo” in the translation is pronounced with a hard G, Geh shtah po, but in the interpreter’s voice the word has a soft sound, he says the word quietly.)

Korenkiewicz: “Objection, [there is] no foundation that this witness can be aware of the fact…”

Judge Hoffman: “… I will overrule the objection and direct the witness to answer the question.”

Rehle: “I don’t know.”

Conlon: “Are you aware of the fact that a tribunal of the Allied Nations held trials at Nuremberg?”

Rehle: “Yes.”

Conlon: “Are you aware of the fact that the tribunal… made certain findings as to the activities of the Gestapo and the SS?”

Rehle: “I did not interest myself with that … I did not follow this proceeding.” The interpreter twirls on his stool, takes off his glasses, and faces Conlon as he gives Rehle’s answer.

Conlon: Are you aware of the fact that in their ruling the tribunal found… that German occupation authorities did succeed in forcing many of the inhabitants of the occupied territories to work for the German war effort…?”

Rehle: “I did not know that… I did not interest myself with that.” (He holds his right hand over his heart.)

Conlon: Were you aware of the fact that Nuremberg tribunal also found that in the case of Poles employed on farms in Germany, the employers were given authority to inflict corporal punishment… ? They were subjected to constant supervision by the Gestapo and the SS, and if they attempted to leave their jobs, they were sent to correction camps or concentration camps.”

Korenkiewicz: “Objection, beyond the scope of the examination and foundations established for this witness.”

Judge Hoffman (After hearing argument): “I overrule the objection.”

Conlon: “No system functions without participants…”

Rehle: “I do not know about that.”

 

Closing in on the past

The government went afield in its examination Wilhelm Rehle, but the cross-examination is illustrative of the issues this trial addressed. Here in Chicago, not in Nuremberg or Jerusalem, was a forum where the Nazi story could be told to a new generation of Americans. Each day the courtroom was filled with spectators, many of them high-school and college students. Security was extremely tight. Long lines formed in the mornings before a team of blue-shirted GSA guards, who manned a metal-surveillance station. All metal items in pockets were emptied into plastic bags. The guards then ran each person through a walk-through scanner that was set sensitive enough to pick up foil gum wrappers. The spectators were admitted to the trial in groups of five to ten. An express elevator, run by a GSA guard with a holstered pistol and cartridge belt, went directly to the floor where the courtroom was located. Before being admitted, each group was led through another electronic scanner at the courtroom door.

At the trial I noticed a stocky, red-haired lawyer who seemed to be helping the government attorneys. A few days later I saw a newspaper article about him. Gerald C. Bender, a volunteer on the Walus case for more than a year, had given his services to the government on a pro bono basis.

“My father’s family was killed either in Treblinka or in Auschwitz,” he says one day after court, sitting in his law office behind a desk piled high with papers and files. “I don’t know which.” He turns to one of the folders on a bookcase that is crammed with paperbacks about the Nazis. “They lived in Lomza, Poland.” He hands me a document. “I wrote to an agency, and they sent me this. I thought the Lomza Jews were killed in Auschwitz. Now, this says Treblinka. I just don’t know.” He puts four dots on a sheet of scratch paper. “Lomza was here.” He makes a dot. “And Treblinka, here. Right next to Lomza. But instead they shipped the Jews from Lomza down to Auschwitz. Way down here in the south of Poland. It was a long, long trip. They’d freeze and die. It was cheaper to kill them that way. And the Jews from Czestochowa.” Another dot on the paper. “They shipped them all the way back up to Treblinka. Yet Czestochowa was right next to Auschwitz. So by shipping the Czestochowa Jews north to Treblinka, they’d freeze them, and it’d be cheaper.”

“Do you know,” I ask, “how the government found the Israeli witnesses?”

“They advertised for them. There were 41,000 Jews in the ghettos in Czestochowa and Kielce. Most of the survivors, only a few thousand, are in New York City or Israel. They showed them in a photo spread. You want to see it? I’ve got copies of the photographs.”

He reaches into another file and pulls out a series of photographs. “They couldn’t have a line-up, so the Israeli police used a composite of these.” He arranges the eight photos in a wheel on his desk. “They weren’t shown separately, they were shown together as a group, something like this. See if you can identify Walus.”

“I just saw him in the courtroom.”

“Which one is he?”

I look at the eight photos. All the men look alike — middle-aged, dressed neatly in suits and ties, like middle-management executives. I am having difficulty. Finally, I recognize him. “That’s him.”

“Right.”

“What about the photograph of Walus and Anton Stolz? How do you explain that?”

Bender tosses a snapshot to me over the desktop clutter. It’s a picture of Bender with a woman a few kids sitting on a couch. They all seem relaxed and tanned, in sports clothes, as if they’ve just come in from tennis. “I was seventeen in that picture. That’s my sister and her kids in Miami.”

He doesn’t look 17. He looks like a man in his late 30s. But I don’t know for sure.

“See what I mean?” he asks. “I show you a picture. How do you know when it was taken? I saw I was seventeen. So prove I wasn’t seventeen.”

“Walus’s picture with Stolz could have been taken in 1944 or 1945.”

“Right. After Walus finished playing his games in Czestochowa.”

“So you think he really worked on the farm.”

“I think he worked on the farm, but not when he said he did. I think it was later, after all the killing. I think those German farmers were lying. And most of the media missed that, even though it was brought out in cross-examination. A Chicago Daily News reporter interviewed some woman in German over a year before the trial. [Milt Fullerton, December 30, 1976, and January 3, 1977.] Some reporters from the Daily News were in Walus’s living room in December 1976, interviewing him, and he told them that he had alibi witnesses in Germany. Well, they saw the name of one of the witnesses on an envelope he had on a table. They must have called their correspondent in Europe immediately. Anyway, the European reporter [Fullerton] interviews her before Walus can get to her. She tells him that Walus was on her farm in 1944 and 1943, and maybe part of 1942, but not 1941 as he claims, not in 1940. A few days later, she changed her story. Here, look at this.”

Bender shows me the Daily News of January 8, 1977, a story by Charles Nicodemus based on interviews in Chicago by Nicodemus, Barry Fletcher, and William Clements: Walus says, “I too have witnesses! They will tell. They will say I am in Germany whole war. From 1940 to 1945. All time.’ He picked up two envelopes and waved them in front of reporters. ‘We write each other, even now. Back and forth. See? These are my people. My witnesses.”

One of them, Maria Zeller, talked to Daily News correspondent Milt Fullerton from her farm near Bubenhausen, 50 miles from Munich, on December 30, 1976. “Hesitating, turning repeatedly to her three grown daughters, she discussed Wulecki’s [Walus’s] stay during an interview with Fullerton. [The names of Walus and Zeller were changed in the Daily News story to avoid prejudicial pretrial statements.] ‘With all the men gone we needed help… with the crops. We asked the Labor Service. They sent Fritz. He seemed to so young. So nice. So energetic. Just like a German boy. And he spoke perfect German. He was like one of the family.’ ‘During what years?’ Fullerton asked. ‘In 1944,’ Mrs. Zellen [Zeller] said finally. ‘And probably 1943.’ Later in our conversation she said, ‘Maybe also in 1942.’ ‘No earlier?’ ‘No, 1944 and probably 1943. Maybe part of 1942 — it was so long ago.’ ‘Not at the beginning of the war?’ ‘No, 1944… 1943….’

“Five days later, Fullerton phone the Zellens to see if Mrs. Zellen had recalled any specific events, or found any documents that would further clarify the years of Wulecki’s stay. ‘No,’ she said, ‘there were no new memories or documents to be found. But I have decided Fritz may have been here in 1940,’ she said. ‘Why?’ What had happened to make her alter her story by two or three years? There was ‘no reason,’ Mrs. Zellen said. ‘No event. No paper. No record. I have just decided it might have been 1940.’ ”

Also in the same Daily News story there was an interview in Israel with Dov Belgauer (David Gelbhauer, who was a witness at the trial) by reporter Jay Bushinsky. Gelbhauer had been a locksmith in Czestochowa. Gelbhauer remembers:

“ ‘I was at the Gestapo’s fenced-in killing place on Kaveia Street in the ghetto when Wulecki brought in a Jewish woman. She was very pretty with long, dark hair. She had two young girls with her. She was about 35… maybe 36.’ She had been caught living outside the ghetto, hiding with a Christian family. ‘When she was brought in, Wulecki told her to strip,’ Belgauer said softly. ‘She wouldn’t. So he ordered her over against the fence — he shoved her. Then he pulled his pistol and shot her in the back of the head. Just like that.’

“ ‘I was there on my wagon, watching. As soon as he shot her, the children started crying. I couldn’t bear to watch. I turned my head away, crying inside. Then I heard two more shots. I looked back. Wulecki had shot the little girls, too. They were all dead, all three….’ ”

Chaim Heigelman (Chaim Beigelman), an electrician from Czestochowa, now in Israel, was also interviewed by Bushinsky:

“ ‘Wulecki was a Pole who was recruited by the Germans,’ Heigelman told Bushinsky. ‘He had a reputation as a Gestapo agent who took special pleasure in hunting down Jews. He was a very young and innocent-looking. But he had what we called a Mordlust — a death lust for Jews….’ ”

I hand the clippings back to Bender and ask him about the list mentioned in the article: “On September 23 [1976], the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service announced that it was evaluating the cases of more than 75 war crimes suspects who are living in the country, stating that they might be deported or stripped of their citizenship…. However, Daily News correspondent Bushinsky obtained a list from Israeli government sources of all the suspects under scrutiny — a list that has since grown 89. Wulecki appeared as the 73rd name on their initial, alphabetized list. More than ten other Chicago residents were also on that list.”

“What about this list?” I ask Bender. “Do you know anything about it?”

“I’ve got the same list.”

“What do you do if someone gives you the name of a suspect?”

“I send it to Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna.” There’s a picture on his wall of himself and Simon Wiesenthal taken when Wiesenthal was in Chicago recently. “Or I’d give it to Marty Mendelsohn, who’s head of the Justice Department task force unit in Washington. I think Mendelsohn’s got over a hundred names now. I’ve had several called in to me since the Walus trial.”

“Can I look at your list?”

“Yeah. You can look at it.” He hands it to me. It’s a neatly typed alphabetized list. “The government will get every last one of these things,” Bender says, his eyes flashing. “Talk to Marty Mendelsohn in Washington. Talk to John Gubbins here in Chicago.” (Gubbins, assisted by Civil Division chief William Conlon, was in charge of the Walus case.)

I hand him back the list and he holds it in front of him, slowly turning the pages, looking at the names. “One day, it will come their turn, and when their turn comes — they will know it,” he says. “The government will get each one of them. They weren’t soldiers. They were murderers. And they all volunteered to be murderers. They were all volunteers. They burned children in the streets. Now they come to our great country and they want America to protect them. But their turn will come. Each and every one of them.”

 

Odessa and the INS

The next day I called Martin Mendelsohn in Washington, the chief attorney for the Justice Department’s new task force. I’d read Howard Blum’s 1977 book, Wanted! The Search for Nazis in America, in which Blum disclosed that in 1972 the president of the World Jewish Congress had given a list of 59 Nazis living in America to Tony DeVito, an investigator for the Immigration and Naturalization Service and a central figure in Blum’s book. DeVito was the INS’s agent in charge of the investigation of Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, a murderous guard at the Ravensbrueck and Majdanek concentration camps who was living in the United States. Wiesenthal had given her name to U.S. authorities in 1964, and so far she is the only Nazi to be deported. (She now lives in Germany.) Since her conviction in 1972, Blum charges, the INS and the Justice Department had failed to convict any of the 59 suspects (that is, until the Walus case). In 1973, Tony DeVito quit his job in disgust.

At one time, Blum wrote, all 59 of the Nazi suspects had been assigned to DeVito. He was certain that this was a task designed to hinder his development of the cases. In the book, DeVito complained of constant interference at the upper levels of the INS during the Nixon administration. He told us of witness interviews stolen from his locked files, entire files lost, routed to different cities, investigations suspended. He told of numerous interventions with INS officials by congressmen asserting political clout on behalf of Nazi suspects. He had long ago concluded, he said, that he really was up against a greater force — the organization of former Gestapo agents known as Odessa (Organisation der ehemaligen SS — Angehorigen).

I ask Martin Mendelsohn if, as head of the Justice Department’s unit, he’s had any contact with Odessa.

“Odessa?” he says. He speaks in a clipped Eastern accent. “No. None whatsoever.”

“Do you think there’s an organization operating known as Odessa?”

“I don’t know. Ask Conlon or Gubbins in Chicago.”

“Have you read Howard Blum’s book?”

“Yes, I’ve read it.”

“Are you familiar with the list Blum mentioned? The list he said Tony DeVito got in 1972 from the World Jewish Congress with the names of the 59 Nazi suspects living in the United States?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have the list?”

“I have the list.”

“How many names are on it?”

“We’re looking at over a hundred.”

“And are any of these people being prosecuted?”

“I’ll name them for you. Vilis Hazners, in Albany, New York. Hazners is alleged to be a Latvian SS man. He’s admitted it. Hazner’s is a deportation proceeding before an immigration judge. Then there’s Karlis Detlavs in Baltimore. Also a deportation proceeding. Detlavs was Latvian policeman.”

“Any others?”

“Boleslavs Maikovskis in New York City. Another deportation proceeding. Maikovskis claimed the Fifth Amendment [denied on appeal]. We went into the U.S. District Court for an order on him. We have pending a petition to take depositions of eyewitnesses in the Soviet Union.” (According to Blum, Maikovskis was in charge of SS killing units responsible for 34,000 deaths in the forests outside Riga, units made up of local volunteers recruited by the SS. Maikovskis is living as a retired carpenter in Mineola, Long Island. Patriotic like Walus, who wears the American-flag lapel pin, Maikovskis has an American-flag emblem on his front door. He recently was shot in the knee by unknown assailants, but is out of the hospital.)

“How many lawyers do you have in your unit?” I ask Mendelsohn.

“We have five lawyers in the unit and supporting personnel.”

“Are you looking for more people?”

“No, right now we’re fully staffed.” (Apparently Mendelsohn is now looking for funding for at least four additional attorneys and his list has grown to almost 200 names. Also, his unit is supervising additional proceedings in Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Hartford, and Los Angeles.)

“Are there any other prosecutions you want to mention?”

“Yes, we’re beginning a case in Fort Lauderdale, in the District Court there, against Feodor Fedorenko, a concentration-camp guard.” (According to the Miami Herald, Fedorenko was accused of having been a guard at Treblinka, 60 miles northeast of Warsaw. He was accused of having been part of a Ukrainian unit that met Jews as they came off freight cars. The Ukrainians, using whips and dogs, would separate the elderly and ill prisoners from the others and lead them to killing pits where they were machine-gunned. Other prisoners were separated by sex and sent to barracks, where they were searched, stripped, their hair shorn, and then taken to “disinfection” showers, where they were gassed. It is estimated that 500,000 to 800,000 Jews were killed at Treblinka. In 1943, the Treblinka prisoners revolted. Fedorenko is accused by survivors of having led search teams into the surrounding woods to capture Jews, who were then ordered hung by their heels and shot. Fedorenko was living among survivors of Auschwitz and Dachau in a second-floor apartment on Euclid Avenue in South Miami Beach. During the trial, he jogged daily on the beach.)

Since my conversation with Mendelsohn, the government lost the Fedorenko case. The case was prepared and prosecuted by the attorney’s office in Dade County, not by Mendelsohn’s office, and courtroom observers say that the survivor-witnesses were poorly prepared and seemed confused.

 

Is time running out?

John Gubbins, the government’s case attorney in the Walus proceeding, is a 35-year-old assistant U.S. attorney in the Civil Division. He’s a graduation of St. Mary’s University. At one he studied for the priesthood and, later, enrolled in a graduate program in philosophy at the University of Chicago. He had completed his requirements for a Ph.D. in philosophy but went instead to the Columbia University School of Law, graduating in 1974.

Gubbins is a pleasant, friendly man who seems as if he could be a priest, philosopher, or lawyer. There is a small bronze of FDR on his bookcase. An FM station plays music softly as we talk. Although it is warm, Gubbins is wearing a corduroy trousers and a blue oxford button-down. He is a ease, very hospitable, an intellectual, reflective man. But when he answers the phone, the calm disappears. “John Gubbins,” he says quickly. “Yes. Yes. No, I can’t. All right. You do it.”

Above his desk is a watercolor of a house in a forest, the kind of painting that looks as if it might been have done by his wife. The colors are bright and cheerful, as if it were a cottage in some magic forest.

“What do you think of Walus?” I ask.

“Walus?” Gubbins leans back again with his hands folded behind his head. When he comes forward, his face is hard and he talks quietly “There’s no forgiveness… there’s no social forgiveness. Even if the guy’s reformed. Even if he’s purified his soul. The crimes are so horrifying, they’re in a class by themselves. They’re unique.”

I nod my head.

“You know,” he says, “I had a lot of stuff around in my mind because of my background in philosophy. But the trial has taken over now and pushed everything out. I can’t get over it. It’s affected everything I think of — my political opinions, my deepest principles.”

I can see the lines of fatigue in Gubbins’s face. His eyes are shadowed by dark rims, and his face, behind the mask of vitality, is pale. He has been drained by this trial.

“Tell me, was there ever a request for tradition on Walus? Did the Polish government try to extradite him? Did they cooperate with you?”

“The Polish government never helped me.”

“Did you ask them?”

“Yes, we asked them.”

“And they wouldn’t cooperate?”

“We had one witness in Poland that Walus had made certain admissions to, and we wanted to get this guy out. To get him a visa so he could come to this country.”

“Did Walus try to get any witnesses out of Poland?”

“He got this priest. Father Tomczyk. He was given a visa.”

“But not your man.”

“No. They didn’t cooperate at all. Even if I had the time to give them notice and get Letters Rogatory [loosely, a request for subpoena], I’m not certain it would have done any good. We don’t have a convention in Poland, and I don’t know about reliability [of testimony]. Do they punish perjury the same way we would?”

“What about our State Department? Did they try to intercede for you?”

“The man in Warsaw was very good. He did what he could. But many of these Iron Curtain countries consider the U.S. a haven for Nazis. For years we haven’t prosecuted Nazis. Now that we’re trying to do something, they aren’t jumping to help us. They are still people, too, and they’re outraged.”

“Still, they helped Walus bring Father Tomczyk out.”

“Yes, they did.”

“Well, if Poland isn’t trying to extradite Walus, where will he go if he’s deported?” (The deportation proceeding is separate from a denaturalization trial and could take several years.)

“Without an extradition request, he could go anywhere.”

“Tell me about Odessa,” I say to Gubbins. “Was there any trouble with Odessa?”

“You mean witnesses being threatened?”

“Yes.”

“Well, Simon Mlodinow was threatened several times. But he’s very tough. I think he’s the only living officer of the Czestochowa Jewish Resistance, and he’s quite stoic.”

“What happened to Mlodinow?”

“He was getting three calls a night for about three weeks. Stuff like ‘A good Jew is a dead Jew.’ Definite threats. Very abusive.”

“Isn’t Mlodinow the man who told the papers about running into Walus on the Chicago subway? Several years ago, he looked up and there was Walus sitting on the subway. Mlodinow wondered where he’d seen him before and finally spoke to him Polish.”

“Right. And then Mlodinow thought he recognized Walus and said ‘Czestochowa?’ Walus immediately got up and left the train at the next stop.”

“Any other threats?”

“Yes, there was Michael Alper (the government witness who had been a Walus roomer). There was a serious fire at his apartment building after Walus contacted him there. Also, Alper told me that Walus tried to run him over once with his car.”

“Were these things ever reported?”

“I believe the fire was reported. Also, Alper said that Walus represented himself as an FBI agent and told him he could have a Mexican kill Alper at any time for $500.”

“Where is Alper now?”

“He’s changed his name and his identity.”

“What about yourself?”

“Well, I get some Nazi hate mail. The usual stuff.”

“Anything else?”

“Nothing much. Someone was following me in Lincoln Park and taking pictures with a telephoto lens.”

“Did you report that?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes. Someone shot at the apartments next to us and over us, in December 1977. There were bullets fired into the windows. Fortunately, we weren’t home. I reported it to the police. My wife didn’t know about it at the time, and I didn’t tell her or media people. I didn’t want to frighten her or any of the survivor-witnesses.”

“Did they ever find out who fired the shots?”

“No. Just a blue van. Someone saw a blue van.”

“That’s frightening. Do you think it was Odessa trying to get a message to you?”

“I can’t say. The police said it was just someone on a joy ride.”

“In his book, Howard Blum said that the Justice Department was given a list of Nazi suspects back in 1972. Do you have that list or any other lists?”

“I don’t have a list.”

“What about investigators? Supposedly, there are ten suspects on the list from the Chicago area. How many investigators do you have?”

“Last year we only had one. Now we have two assisting the Civil Division. But the guy who was working on my cases had all the subversives and the Iranian student cases. We don’t have enough investigators to work on the cases. And in ten or fifteen years, it’s all going to be gone. The witnesses will be dead, and the perpetrators will be dead.”

 

A peaceful life on the Southwest Side

On May 30, 1978, Judge Hoffman found Frank Walus guilty on all four counts of the complaint and ordered his Certificate of Naturalization revoked. I tried to talk to Bob Korenkiewicz, Walus’s attorney, in the courtroom after the decision, but he was surrounded by reporters. A few days later, I reached him by phone and made an appointment.

Korenkiewicz’s office is in a modern savings-and-loan building on the Southeast Side of Chicago. The S&L has a bright golden eagle as a spire. Across the street there’s a tavern. Korenkiewicz has told me to call him from the tavern. It’s Wednesday and the savings and loan is closed, so he’ll have to come down from his office to let me in the front door of the bank. No one pays attention to me in the tavern. All the customers are old men at play with their pool games and glasses of tap beer. The TV blares a baseball game. Korenkiewicz’s line is busy so I walk back across the street and rap on the glass door. People on the sidewalk stare at my suit and briefcase. The children on the walk are blond and fair with fragile high cheekbones, eyes blue and innocent. Some of them wear T-shirts printed HOLY MARTYRS SCHOOL. A woman in a white waitress uniform stands at a news kiosk. She buys a Polish-language newspaper. Down the street are rows of dark-red-brick two-flats. Everything is neat, orderly. Garbage cans at the curb for collection. Bundles of plastic at each driveway. An old man in a kerchief stands in the shadows of one of the houses and hoses down a her porch. Finally, a cleaning lady comes to the front door. The people in Korenkiewicz’s office are pleasant and polite. He is waiting for me, thin and balding, thick glasses, a quick intelligence.

“Before we get into the Walus case, I want to tell you about this case I had with the kid and his playhouse out in Bellwood. It was really a dynamite case. This boy Danny is ten years old and he builds a playhouse in his backyard out of scrap lumber. Well, a policeman comes along and gives him citation. Violation of zoning ordinance. Can’t have a free-standing building in your backyard other than a garage. Now, imagine arresting a child for building a playhouse in his backyard. The city said that it was close to the alley and that perverts could hide inside. Oh, yeah dynamite. [Korenkiewicz obviously loves the Danny case, which he won.] I remember now, it was a stand-up trial and we were ringed by police and officials.”

“What connection do you see between Danny’s case and the Walus case?” (Ringed by police and officials.)

“No connection. Walus, my God, no connection. Walus was like being in the eye of a whirlwind,” he says. “I put in over 900 hours on the case, every evening, every weekend. The trial was really anticlimactic. I had depped every witness. I knew exactly what they were going to say.”

“You took depositions of all the Israeli witnesses?”

“Yes, in Tel Aviv. At the American Consulate.”

“You think all the Israeli witnesses misidentified Walus?”

“Yes. My feelings were, and always have been, that Mr. Walus was not the guy.”

“But some of the witnesses were right there. They actually saw the killings.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

I begin to read the Daily news interview by Jay Bushinsky to Korenkiewicz, the interview with the witness David Gelbhauer:

“I was at the Gestapo’s fenced-in killing place on Kaveia Street in the ghetto when Wulecki brought in a Jewish woman. She was very pretty with long, dark hair. She had two young girls with her. She was about 35… maybe 36.’ She had been caught living outside the ghetto, hiding with a Christian family. ‘When she was brought in, Wulecki told her to strip,’ Belgauer said softly. ‘She wouldn’t. So he ordered her over against the fence — he shoved her….’”

After I have read a bit more, I look at Korenkiewicz to see what impact the reading has on him. The eyes behind the thick glasses stare back at me impassively.

“That testimony doesn’t trouble you?”

“Are you asking Bob Korenkiewicz the lawyer, or Bob Korenkiewicz the citizen? All I have to do is look at my own son. It doesn’t take six million, it only takes one.”

“Did you have any contact with Odessa?”

“Odessa? No, none whatsoever.”

“Where do you think Walus got his money?”

“I don’t think he got it from Odessa. I know he had difficulty coming up with it. When I needed more money I’d say, ‘Hey, Frank….’ ”

“So he paid you personally. You weren’t paid by some organization.”

“No. He told me he had to borrow from friends to meet the cost of trial.”

“Were you threatened in any way during the trial?”

“Threatened? No. I think I got one goofy phone call.”

“Do you know that someone shot at John Gubbins’s apartment? Last December. Someone in a van shot at his apartment building.”

“I never heard that.”

“It never came out in the papers.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Very sorry. Nothing like that happened to me. The only thing remotely connected to something like that is that the windshield of my car was shamed with a hammer. But that’s just a city thing. I park outside.”

“Were you ever threatened by any Jewish groups?”

“No. Not at all.”

“Or did the government ever tape your phone or follow you, disturb your files or interfere in any way?”

“No, there was nothing like that. I was let alone. In that respect it was no different from an ordinary personal-injury case. Oh, someone sent me a newspaper called Thunderbolt. A six-month subscription. Typical right-wing trash. ‘Jews are no good, Poles are no good.’ ”

The phone rings. It’s after five now, and the secretaries have left. Korenkiewicz answers the phone, “Law office,” and then he begins making arrangements for an upcoming real-estate closing.

When he hangs up, I ask him, “Don’t you think you’re wasting your talents handling real-estate closings?”

“I have to make a living,” he says, and smiles as he lights another cigarette.

“I mean, I saw you at the trial. You took on the government, and I thought you did very well. You could be downtown with a big firm as a trial partner.”

“No, I’d rather spend my time out here. The good cases don’t all exist downtown. There are good cases out here. I wouldn’t be happy with a downtown firm. I’d rather spend my time with people who helped me. You know, I went to law school at night. I was in the business world for eight years. I was a salesman for Honeywell, in their controls division. Environmental controls. But I come from a family of tradesmen. I wanted a trade.”

“So you went into the law.”

“Right. I take after my grandfather, who came from Minsk. He had a little cart. I could never work for anyone.”

“You’re Russian?”

“Russian and Polish. I’m ethnic. I’m here with my people. I don’t want to have a Cadillac. [He drives a 1953 Studebaker, beautifully restored. A green body, cream top.] I don’t want a big home in the suburbs.”

He leans toward me and folds his hands on the desk. “You know,” he says quietly, “my family comes from the Maxwell Street area, a slum, a Polish slum. They lived across from where the Chicago Fire started. My grandmother and my aunt were beaten in the streets because they looked Slavic. I’m a third-generation ethnic.” He pauses and looks up at me. “I’ve always wondered what it takes to become an American.”

“So you have the same kind of defensive feeling about Frank Walus? That he is being victimized by the Americans?”

“No. But imagine yourself. Just think of it. Imagine yourself living a peaceful life on the Southwest Side of Chicago and suddenly being called a Nazi criminal. Personally, I like Frank Walus. I feel sorry for him. I truly believe he’s not the guy. Imagine a person who’s not the guy going through what Frank Walus went through. I don’t know how I could bear it.”

“But what if you’re wrong, Bob?” I say to him. “What if he really is the guy, and he’s lied to you? Don’t you feel as if you’ve been duped, that he’s manipulated you and our legal system?”

“It would make no difference to me.” Korenkiewicz says quietly. “That’s the chance a defense lawyer always takes.”

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