World & Nation

Former Nazi guard, 89, dies before extradition for Holocaust trial

Auschwitz, June 1944
Prisoners at the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz, Poland, in a 1944 photo. An 89-year-old former guard at the camp died in Philadelphia on Tuesday hours before a judge ordered his extradition to Germany to face war crime charges.
(Galerie Bilderwelt / Getty Images)

A former Nazi guard living in Philadelphia died hours before he was ordered to be extradited to Germany for trial on suspicion of helping carry out the Holocaust, according to his attorney.

Johann Breyer, 89, died Tuesday night, Dennis E. Boyle, his lawyer, told the Los Angeles Times. A federal judge approved his extradition on Wednesday, according to court records. 

“Like other accused war criminals, Breyer must submit to the judgment of law for his alleged role in Nazi atrocities against humanity,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Rice wrote, apparently unaware that Breyer’s own mortality had already taken a hand. 

Breyer’s attorney and the hospital where he was reportedly being treated would not comment further on his death. Breyer had been in poor health since his arrest in June.


The Times previously profiled Breyer in June, when he was arrested at home by U.S. Marshals for extradition on allegations that he was a member of the “Death’s Head” SS guard battalion at one of the Nazis’ worst death camps.

He had maintained his innocence on charges that he was complicit in the deaths of 216,000 Jewish men, women and children who died at the Auschwitz complex in German-occupied Poland while he was there. Six million Jewish people are estimated to have been killed in the Holocaust.

His trial as a Holocaust collaborator likely would have been one of the last of its kind. Breyer had been fighting the threat of deportation for decades. His death reflects the fact that there are fewer and fewer surviving Holocaust suspects every year. Just three weeks ago, another suspected war criminal living in the U.S., John Kalymon, died at the age of 93 before he could be extradited to Europe to face trial.

Nazi hunters call it “biological amnesty,” in which Holocaust suspects do not live long enough to face conviction.


Boyle, Bryer’s attorney, told The Times on Wednesday that the family did not want to make a statement.

Born a farm boy of German descent in eastern Slovakia, then part of the young republic of Czechoslovakia, he enlisted in the Waffen-SS — the armed wing of the Nazi party — at age 17 after receiving a recruitment letter in 1942.

Breyer’s version of events, revealed in court records, is that he was drafted and that the mayor of his village told him he had to go. Even though he was assigned to the Death’s Head guard battalion at Auschwitz, he said, he refused to kill anyone, so he served as a perimeter guard, far from the killing. He says he never shepherded prisoners from the trains to the gas chambers.

Breyer says he soon deserted, hiding in barns and the woods before rejoining his unit for combat duty against the Russians as the war’s end neared.

But U.S. officials say there is no record of Breyer deserting and assert that his unit would have been closely involved with handling the prisoners who were put to death.

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