Fedorenko, Deported From U.S., Doomed by Soviets as War Criminal
Fyodor Fedorenko, a former Nazi death camp guard who 18 months ago became the first naturalized American citizen to be deported to the Soviet Union for war crimes, was found guilty of treason Thursday and sentenced to death, the official news agency Tass reported.
A Soviet court in Simferopol, in the southern Ukraine, found Fedorenko guilty of “betraying the motherland,” of voluntarily aiding Nazi forces during World War II and of participating in the mass execution of civilians, Tass said.
The report left unclear when the sentence is to be carried out or whether there might be an appeal.
Series of U.S. Actions
Fedorenko is one of 19 former refugees stripped of their U.S. citizenship since 1979, in federal court actions brought by the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations. Fourteen have been ordered deported and nine have actually been expelled from the United States.
Among them is Andrija Artukovic, 86, minister of justice in German-occupied Croatia during the war. He lived in Seal Beach, Calif., before his extradition to Yugoslavia, where on May 14 he was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to be executed. Artukovic has appealed the conviction.
The Ukrainian-born Fedorenko, however, was the first deportee to be sent to the Soviet Union; he did not fight being sent back there. Now, the Justice Department is seeking the forcible deportation of others in cases that have generated bitter controversy among Americans of Baltic and Ukrainian descent.
A 78-year-old retired factory worker from Philadelphia, Fedorenko fled to West Germany as the war ended, emigrated to the United States in 1949 and became an American citizen in 1970. A seven-year legal battle that carried his case to the U.S. Supreme Court ended with his deportation to the Soviet Union in December, 1984.
While the Justice Department sought to prove that Fedorenko had taken part in atrocities as a guard at the Treblinka death camp in Poland, he argued in his defense that he was among many Soviet prisoners forced by the Germans to work as camp guards, and that to have refused would have meant death.
U.S. law does not allow the courts to judge guilt or innocence for war crimes. But in a civil trial, Fedorenko was found to have obtained U.S. citizenship under false pretenses by failing to disclose his role as a camp guard. He was stripped of his citizenship in 1979, an action that paved the way for his deportation five years later.
As Fedorenko’s trial opened on June 10, the Soviet news-feature agency Novosti quoted him as saying that he had “never beaten anyone or treated anyone harshly” and that “Jews were among my best friends both in the Soviet Union and later.”
The prosecution, however, contended that he served as a guard in the Jewish ghettos in Lublin and Warsaw and took a direct role in mass killings at several Nazi camps.
“He made people undress under the pretext of preparation for delousing, took their belongings, forced prisoners into gas chambers” in death camps at Treblinka, Stutthof and Pelez, Tass said Thursday.
According to Western reporters who were admitted to an early session of the trial, Presiding Judge Mikhail Tyutyunnik asked Fedorenko why he had won two promotions while serving as a camp guard, and why he had not run away.
“Oh, I was an accurate, orderly worker,” Fedorenko was quoted as replying. “I didn’t violate discipline.” As for escape, he was quoted as saying, “Where could I go?”
The victims “were thinking about themselves,” he reportedly added, and, “I was thinking about myself. I felt bad, I felt sorry for them; but I couldn’t help.”
Wife Left Behind
Fedorenko’s wife, Praskovya, 75, whom he left behind when he fled westward with the collapsing German army, testified at her husband’s trial. She said that over the years she had heard rumors of his collaboration with the Nazis, but that she did not believe them.
Her deeply wrinkled face framed in a peasant scarf, she said that her first word from her husband after the war came in a letter in 1961. He later sent money to her and their two sons, now Soviet citizens in their 30s, and visited his family twice in the 1970s, she said.
Soviet officials have not explained why they granted Fedorenko tourist visas for these trips and took no action against him.
One of Fedorenko’s American lawyers, Andrew Fylypovich of Philadelphia, said in 1984 that his client apparently agreed to return to the Soviet Union when he was deported because he wanted to be reunited with his family and because his Soviet visits had convinced him that he would not be prosecuted. Fedorenko reportedly reconsidered his decision on the eve of his deportation, but no other country could be found that would accept him.
His return in 1984 was like “something falling in on us from the sky,” Praskovya Fedorenko said. “He said, ‘I came to help.’ I told him, ‘To the devil with your help.’ ”
In reporting the conclusion of Fedorenko’s trial, Tass said: “The criminal pleaded guilty in verbal and written statements to the court. For his crimes, Fyodor Fedorenko was sentenced to death.”
The report contained no excerpts from these statements, however.
At the time of Fedorenko’s deportation in 1984, Allen M. Ryan Jr., a former director of the Office of Special Investigations, said his case was likely to fall under an amnesty that the Soviet Union granted to some war criminals in the mid-1960s. Ryan also said that those who were convicted of war crimes tended to receive relatively light sentences, of five to eight years in prison.
300 Under Investigation
According to OSI officials, about 300 former refugees, most of them from the Soviet Union, are currently under investigation for complicity in war crimes, with about 35 cases currently in the courts.
The Justice Department’s use of Soviet eyewitness testimony and documentary evidence in these cases has led to a divisive controversy among American ethnic communities with roots in the Soviet Union. Its campaign is strongly supported by the American Jewish community, while Baltic and Ukrainian groups contend that much of the Soviet evidence is unverifiable, embellished or simply fabricated.
Several U.S. district court judges and appeals court judges have expressed similar reservations about the use of Soviet evidence in American courts.