Breaking News
More () »

Former German camp guard pleads case to avoid deportation, stay in East TN

Fritz Berger was a teenage member of the German Navy in early 1945 when he was assigned to serve as a concentration camp guard.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — The Oak Ridge man who served as a concentration camp guard in the closing weeks of Nazi Germany is fighting deportation in an appeals court, arguing his advanced age and history of heart problems mean he might not survive being forced out of the country.

Fritz Karl Berger also says the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals should also consider his version of events and not take the U.S. Department of Justice only at their word.

In November, a federal immigration appeals board ordered that Berger, now 95, be sent back to Germany for persecution of concentration camp prisoners during his time as a camp guard in March 1945.

Federal authorities say he also took part in the forced evacuation of dying and sickly prisoners from the camp near the Dutch border just days before Adolf Hitler's Germany collapsed. Some 70 prisoners died on the two-week journey.

Records in the case are largely sealed from the public eye. The Department of Justice is empowered under law to identify and force out people who they say took part in wartime atrocities.

Berger, who has lived quietly in Oak Ridge for decades, appears, in fact, to be the last such person facing expulsion from the US.

Attorney Hugh Ward of the Knoxville firm of Young, Williams and Ward has been fighting more than a year to allow Berger, a trained machinist, to stay.

The appeals court set a Feb. 8 deadline for Ward to make his case against deportation. The government has another month to respond. A panel of the appeals court in Cincinnati could then decide how to proceed.

Berger left Germany for Canada in 1956 while in his early 30s, and then settled in 1959 in the United States with his wife and young daughter, records show. He worked in Oak Ridge, and lives there today, cared for by his daughter and family members.

To the United States government, he is an obvious candidate under the law to be removed. While a member of the German Navy, he was dispatched to help guard a subcamp of the Hamburg-based Neuengamme concentration camp system in Germany.

Berger was given a gun and told to watch over captives of the Meppen, Germany, forced-labor camp near Holland in March 1945.

One of his main jobs was to ensure no prisoner escape. The government argues his willing participation as a guard aided the Nazis as they brutalized and even murdered innocent Europeans during the war.

Berger was not a member of the hated SS, which carried out much of Hitler's plan to wipe out any who threatened his despotic reign. A small SS contingent oversaw the Navy camp guards.

But the Oak Ridge man insists he did nothing to harm anyone directly in the war, never fired his gun and hardly knew how to use it. He and other Navy guards lived off site and only followed orders to watch over the prisoners, he argues.

Citing past testimony from similar Germans, the government also alleges Berger took part in the evacuation of the Meppen subcamp to Hamburg as Allies advanced toward Germany in late March 1945.

Ward argues his client's declining health meets a legal test for why he shouldn't be forced out.

In addition, Ward argues an immigration judge in Memphis who first approved the deportation order in February 2020 didn't give due weight to Berger's testimony about what he did during the war. She gave more credence to a government expert who wasn't around and only relied on opinion and speculation in finding Berger "crossed the line into 'assisting' the persecution of civilians."

Berger offered a number of instances in the judge's ruling where the facts diverged from her deference to the expert's opinions rather than Berger's personal knowledge, Ward argues in a motion to stay the board's ruling.

"Rather than applying a comprehensive review to the complete findings of fact in relation to the relevant authority, the (board) merely held that 'while the Immigration Judge found the respondent was generally credible, she was not required to take the respondent’s testimony as true' and adopted her findings," the motion states.

The government's position is sealed.

Berger draws a German pension for his work in his home country, including his brief service in the military.

His name and war service were discovered in about 1950 on an information card found among hundreds in the sunken wreckage of the Thielbek, a steamship destroyed by the British in the Baltic Sea in the closing days of the war.

Along with storing a trove of information about German Navy personnel, the ship carried several thousand concentration camp prisoners and guards. Most died in the bombing.

Berger told authorities he and other service personnel fled into German woods in early April 1945, where they were discovered by the British. He was in a prisoner of war camp until Christmas Eve, 1945, after which he went to work as a truck driver helping the British in his country, records state.