Review | Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America – Debbie Cenziper

About the Book

The gripping story of a team of Nazi hunters at the U.S. Department of Justice as they raced against time to expose members of a brutal SS killing force who disappeared in America after World War Two.

In 1990, in a drafty basement archive in Prague, two American historians made a startling discovery: a Nazi roster from 1945 that no Western investigator had ever seen. The long-forgotten document, containing more than 700 names, helped unravel the details behind the most lethal killing operation in World War Two. 

In the tiny Polish village of Trawniki, the SS set up a school for mass murder and then recruited a roving army of foot soldiers, 5,000 men strong, to help annihilate the Jewish population of occupied Poland. After the war, some of these men vanished, making their way to the U.S. and blending into communities across America. Though they participated in some of the most unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust, “Trawniki Men” spent years hiding in plain sight, their terrible secrets intact.

In a story spanning seven decades, Citizen 865 chronicles the harrowing wartime journeys of two Jewish orphans from occupied Poland who outran the men of Trawniki and settled in the United States, only to learn that some of their one-time captors had followed. A tenacious team of prosecutors and historians pursued these men and, up against the forces of time and political opposition, battled to the present day to remove them from U.S. soil. 

Through insider accounts and research in four countries, this urgent and powerful narrative provides a front row seat to the dramatic turn of events that allowed a small group of American Nazi hunters to hold murderous men accountable for their crimes decades after the war’s end.

320 pages (kindle)
Published on November 12, 2019
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This book was a library loan.


What first pulled me in about this book, was the fact that it’s about a group of individuals in World War II that operated largely in Eastern Europe, whom I have never heard of. This is no small thing, because I’ve spent just a ridiculous chunk of the past (mumble-mumble) years researching all things Eastern Europe, and the less known aspects of World War II that impacted regions like Poland and Ukraine so dramatically. 

I’m not saying I know everything, but generally if it’s weird and less known, either I or one of my readers have probably hunted it out and sent it to me. 

So, I’ve never heard of the Trawniki men, nor have I heard of their training facility in an old sugar factory in Trawniki, Poland. Nor did I know what they have done. I will say, tangentially, I have watched a Netflix Documentary The Devil Next Door on one of the men who was actually trained at this facility, and was thought to perhaps be Ivan the Terrible, but was then proven not to be (though he did work at such camps as Sobibor and the like). He is mentioned in this book, so there was a thread of familiarity there, for me.

Citizen 865 is kind of an odd book. In one way, it had a target, and it hit it. It told the story of the Trawniki Men. How they came to be, and what their purpose is, and the overwhelming effort and determination it took to discover the truth of that organization, what they had done, who they were, and how they functioned.

The book is written in a third person narrative style, so it does read more like a novel than anything else. This will benefit readers who aren’t fans of dry nonfiction books. It does make the reading of it feel less like work. That being said, the author is very clear that the dialogue has been pieced together by years of research and interviews, or at times, assumed based on the research she had available to her. However, there’s still guesswork going on there, and that should be noted. This, perhaps, is a good jumping off point for further research on the Trawniki men, but if you’re using it as the foundation upon which your research rests, perhaps take into consideration that there has been some guesswork done on some of the dialogue, specifically portions that are told more like a story, such as the story of Feliks at the start of the book. 

That small point aside, Citizen 865 is really an eye-opening tale about a really dark, horrible corner of World War II that I never had encountered before. Most Trawniki men were Soviet prisoners of war. They could speak the languages in Eastern Europe, which is something that the German soldiers could not do. They understood the lay of the land, the local culture and the like, which made them invaluable. Furthermore, the trade was generally a good one on their part. In exchange for working for the Reich, they went to a training camp to learn how to do what they needed to do, and were given German citizenship and payment, complete with vacation time in exchange. Scooping up ex-POWs who had nothing to lose and everything to gain, was a stroke of genius that seems to pepper various parts of the Nazi plan throughout World War II. Here were men who had all the anger and disillusionment a person could ask for, all they needed was a gun.

Anyway.

The Trawniki men were, in my mind, the guys who did all the stuff no one else really wanted to do. Foot soldiers of the Final Solution, they were part and party to some of the most gruesome parts of the Eastern Front of the war, like the uprising the Warsaw Ghetto, and spent time in numerous kill sites, as well as being assigned to kill the Jews that were rounded up and brought to forests to be murdered. They were often rough, brutal, angry, and dangerous to be around, disenfranchised men who had nothing to hold on to outside of this organization that seemed to, in a way, give them some semblance of life back. A lot of this book centers around the town of Lublin, Poland, which was the site of one of the largest mass killings of Jews in the entire war, and it was the Trawniki men who were party to that brutality. 

Citizen 865 is a Ukrainian man named Jakob Reimer, who lied about his wartime activities and ended up gaining US citizenship in the 1950s. He lived and worked in the states, got married, had a family, settled down. It wasn’t until the Iron Curtain fell, and a bevy of evidence was made available to the west (at which point the US Department of Justice created the OSI) that he, and others like him, were eventually discovered. It took a lot of work and diligent effort on the part of those assigned to hunt down Nazi collaborators in the US to find the eventual truth of the secretive Trawniki men, and one Jakob Reimer. It’s an ugly story, and perhaps it is made even uglier because of the sheer brutality of the work these individuals were part and party to. 

On a personal level, I have a very hard time understanding how anyone could be part of something like that, and then how they could ever imagine living a “normal life” afterwards would be possible. It is horrifying to think that so many Nazi collaborators have hidden themselves all over the world. They got to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, move somewhere different, and create entirely new people and life stories for themselves, while behind them, they leave nothing but a trail of bodies, unanswered questions, and blood. The brevity of it steals the breath from my lungs.

And often, while justice is a long time coming, it comes due to a diligent group of individuals who refuse to give up the search for answers, for truth, for the men like Jakob Reimer, who were party to unbelievable crimes against humanity. The heroes of this dark tale are the paper pushers. The clue hunters. The office workers. The diligent. The dedicated.

This book is told in a few chunks. It opens up with the story of two survivors of Lublin, and then moves into the eventual creation of OSI, and the trials that were involved with hunting down Nazis hidden in America. Interviews are covered, where the dialogue is verbatim from what was given at that interview, and then it moves back to World War II, Lublin, and the like. The story of Feliks is probably the part of the book that stood out to me the most, likely because I don’t really feel like it fit in with anything else. It’s interesting, and I’m glad I read it, but I think I was expecting it to be the thread that the narrative curled around, and it really wasn’t. While the human impact given through that particular story hit me pretty hard, I’m not honestly sure if it added anything to the overarching story of the Trawniki men as a whole. 

The truth is, there is a whole lot of World War II that we will likely never really know. Lots of evidence was buried. People who lived through it have, in all likelihood, died of old age, or nearly are there. Lots of things were destroyed when the Reich fell. It’s through the hard, painstaking work of survivors, descendants, dedicated historians and justice workers that stories of men such as these, and the training camps and methodology behind their organization can come to light. 

Citizen 865 is one of those books that is hard to read, but necessary, and it likely touches on a part of World War II that even a whole lot of World War II buffs don’t know much about. It is important that we understand not just what happened, but why it happened. It’s important that we act as a witness, so stories continue being told. So people remain unforgotten. So we can examine the dark underbelly of humanity, and refuse to ever go back. 

4/5 stars

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