Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
Allan A. Ryan’s Quiet Neighbors (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984) recreates some of the horrors Jewish victims lived through in the Nazi death camps and describes the often lengthy and challenging process of bringing the Nazi victimizers and their collaborators to justice. In the short span of a year, from July 1942 to August 1943, the Nazis murdered nearly a million Jews at Treblinka. As Ryan recounts, “The guards drove the dazed and fearful Jews like livestock from the trains to be processed—clothing removed, hair shorn—some snatched out of the streams of people and told to stand aside. Families who had managed to stay together during the suffocating train ride slowly fell apart, their screams, their outstretched arms no match for the disciplined and experienced guards. After their hair was removed, the naked cargo was herded onto a dirt path packed hard by the feet of thousands of people before them. At the end lay gas chambers and, beyond them, deep smoldering pits that sent up thick black smoke to darken the sky” (Quiet Neighbors, 2). Some of the guards, many of whom were Ukrainian in origin, were particularly cruel and relished in humiliating and torturing the victims before killing them. One of the worst sadists among them was Ivan Marchenko, the man who pumped carbon monoxide into the gas chambers. Known as “Ivan the Terrible” among the prisoners and staff of Treblinka, Ivan was a mountain of a man infamous for beating victims with an iron pipe or cutting off body parts, just for sport, before killing them.
Amazingly, Marchenko, as well as other notorious Nazi collaborators, found refuge in the U.S. and blended seamlessly among American citizens. In fact, Ryan notes that in an ironic twist of justice, it became easier for former Nazi collaborators to immigrate legally to the U.S. after the war than for the survivors of the Holocaust. Ivan changed his name to John Demajanjuk and came to the U.S. in 1952. He and his wife moved to a small town, Seven Hills, in Ohio and raised together three kids. They were well liked by neighbors and no one suspected Ivan of wrongdoing, much less of crimes against humanity. It took nearly thirty years for the authorities to catch on that Demajanjuk was in fact Ivan Marchenko, the Terror of Treblinka, and strip him of his American citizenship.
Ryan argues that the fact that the U.S. was more likely to harbor victimizers rather than the victims of the Holocaust is not entirely accidental. The U.S. leadership, as we’ve seen in an earlier article, never wanted to portray WWII as fought to save the Jews. Even American Jewish leaders hesitated to apply too much pressure upon the government lest they unleash a wave of anti-Semitism in the country. In the summer of 1948, President Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act, which allowed 200,000 people to immigrate to the U.S. over a two-year period. (16) The vast majority—about 85 percent–of Jewish refugees who wanted to immigrate was excluded from this bill. By way of contrast, immigrants from countries that collaborated with the Nazis were welcome: “Having excluded nearly all the Jews,” Ryan observes, “Congress then extended America’s hand to the Balts. It required that 40 percent of the immigrants be from countries that had been “de facto annexed by a foreign power”—a diplomatic euphemism for Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, whose incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1944 the United States had never officially recognized” (17). The immigration bill also privileged farmers (offering them 30 percent of the available slots), which formed a high percentage of the non-Jewish Eastern European immigrants and a very low percentage of the Jews. As a New York Times journalist aptly summarized the situation, “As matters stand, it is easier for a former Nazi to enter the United States than for one of the Nazi’s innocent victims” (19).
Quiet Neighbors not only follows the extradition trials of some of the most notorious Nazi collaborators who made their way legally into the United States, but also puts on trial, as it were, America’s topsy-turvy postwar immigration policy, which privileged victimizers over victims.