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Acquaintances of accused Nazi guard say he deserves chance to explain

The Associated Press
7/3/03 5:06 PM

CLINTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) -- Capper Street, with its neat, single-story ranch-style homes, well-manicured lawns and flower-accented porches, is a little slice of American suburbia.

The residents are relaxed in this Macomb County community of nearly 96,000 about 25 miles northeast of Detroit. Neighbors chat while picking up the morning paper, pay an occasional visit to each other. They're friendly without being nosy.

For 77-year-old Johann Leprich and his family, it was a far different picture than the Europe of the 1940s, a chance to move away from the imposing gates of Mauthausen Concentration Camp in German-occupied Austria.

But much like Capper dead-ends into Faulman Street, Leprich's hopes for distancing himself from his past came to an end -- again -- when federal officials, acting on a tip, arrested him at his home Tuesday night. The arrest came about 16 years after he was stripped of his American citizenship for not revealing that he was an armed SS guard at the camp.

Now, the man that neighbors describe as kind and gentle, a "good man" who would give tomatoes from his garden as gifts, faces deportation and possible prosecution.

"The big guys, they escaped (from Germany) under a different name and went to South America with all the looting they have done after the war ... And now they are plantation owners, probably," said Katherine Sendek, a close friend of Leprich's wife, referring to the senior Nazi officials who fled Europe after World War II to avoid war crimes prosecution.

"And the little guy gets cracked down on because he made a mistake on the paper when he came in (to the United States)," said the 77-year-old Sendek, who, after being deported from Hungary in the 1940s, settled briefly in the northern Austrian town of Kraonstof, about 27 miles from Mauthausen.

Like many of Leprich's neighbors, she said she thinks a measure of leniency is in order given that he was young and impressionable at the time.

Leprich's application for U.S. citizenship said he served in the Hungarian Army during the war but did not mention Mauthausen. After officials learned he was a guard there, Leprich acknowledged lying on the application. Former Nazis are ineligible for U.S. citizenship.

After arrived in the United States in 1952, Leprich worked in a Fraser machine shop but fled to Canada in 1987 before deportation proceedings were complete, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Greg Palmore.

Leprich was featured on "America's Most Wanted" in 1997, but officials did not know where he had been living in recent years.

Even so, Leprich had a Michigan driver's license that was issued in 1993, the secretary of state's office said. It expired in 1997 and his name was red-flagged in the department's database to notify the authorities if he came in to renew it, said Kelly Chesney, spokeswoman for the department.

Capturing him was "like finding a needle in a haystack," Palmore said. He was found hiding in a secret compartment beneath the stairs of his home, officials said.

"This arrest makes clear that those who participated in the atrocities of the Holocaust will not escape the determined reach of U.S. law enforcement, regardless of how much time has passed," Attorney General John Ashcroft said in a statement. "Nazi collaborators will not find a safe haven in the United States."

While denouncing the horrors of the camps, Leprich's neighbors said that they find it hard to believe that the elderly man next door had any hand in the crimes.

Mary Bombassbi, who lives a few houses down from Leprich, said Leprich should at least be allowed to explain what he did during the war.

"What's the point in deporting him. He's ... probably not going to live much longer," she said Thursday.

Charles Rosenzveig, executive director of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Oakland County's West Bloomfield Township, describes Leprich's capture and likely deportation as "justice done."

While Mauthausen was not the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps, about 120,000 of its prisoners died either of starvation, disease or the hardship of slave labor at a nearby quarry. The Nazis sent about 200,000 political prisoners, homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war and Jews to the camp, which operated from 1938 to 1945.

"The historical record showed that you were not forced to become guards," said Rosenzveig. "A guard was almost a voluntary decision because they felt that they don't have to go to the army and they will have food and will be able to rule over others."

Deporting Leprich provides a measure of closure for the camp's survivors, some of whom live in southeast Michigan, he said.

For now, Leprich is being held in the Macomb County jail.

Immigration officials say that the next step for Leprich is for a bond hearing in seven to 10 days and then the deportation hearing. A fourth step could be a hearing to determine whether he should be tried in an international tribunal, says Palmore. It is unclear to where he would be deported.

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