The Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald camps held some political and military prisoners, but tens of thousands of people also died there under horrific conditions, such as starvation, slave labor, medical experiments, and executions.
Peter Black, the senior historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that it's “very difficult” to tell whether any particular individual actually volunteered for the SS, or was pressured to join.
But he said the guards were essential to the concentration camp system.
“Even if they don't have any contact with a prisoner, by walking the perimeter as an armed guard, they are helping to keep the people inside that place where they are enduring persecution,” Black said, adding that SS guards were paid, got leave time, and health benefits for their service.
A federal judge in Pittsburgh revoked Geiser's citizenship in 2006 and another judge ordered him deported in 2010. Geiser is fighting that order. He lost a circuit court appeal in 2008, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case in 2009. In 2010 an immigration judge ordered him deported to Austria, or any other country that will take him.
Geiser came to the U.S. in 1956 and settled in the small town of Sharon, which is about 75 miles north of Pittsburgh. He became a citizen in 1962, worked in a steel mill for decades and raised five children.
The Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. did not immediately respond to a question about whether the country would accept Geiser.
Roe said the Board of Immigration Appeals in Fairfax, Va., should consider a different 2009 Supreme Court ruling when it hears Geiser's case on Dec. 6.
The legal question is “about when people are dragged into assisting the persecutions involuntarily,” Roe said, referring to an asylum case involving an Eritrean man who said he was forced to guard prisoners in Ethiopia. In that case the Supreme Court ordered immigration authorities to consider whether people who were part of persecutions did so involuntarily.
Roe said that no matter how the Immigration Board rules, further appeals are possible.
The Justice Department didn't respond to questions for comment on the Geiser case, which is part of its efforts to investigate former Nazis. Since the 1979 inception of the program, it has won more than 100 cases.