A courtroom 15 stories above Manhattan recently reverberated with the echo of a rifle shot fired decades ago into a pit dug in Poland's dark and bloody ground. The shooter, Jack Reimer, now 79, a slight, stooped man with a thick shock of wavy gray hair, says he feigned shooting at the Jews, who were dead already, and he had to do it to save his life. The U.S. government thinks there is much more to Reimer's story and wants the former Brooklyn salesman of Wise potato chips, who has been in the United States since 1952, deported.

Reimer, an ethnic German born in Ukraine, was conscripted into the Red Army, thrown into the maw of the invading Wehrmacht, captured and confined in an open-air POW camp where, he says, trucks carted away corpses every morning. One day, he says, his German captors trucked him and other German-speaking POWs off to the Trawniki training camp in eastern Poland.There, according to the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, thousands of persons, many of them POWs, were trained as SS personnel to do the grunt work of genocide - li-qui-da-ting Jewish ghettos and guarding the death and forced labor camps in Poland. He wore a uniform and carried a weapon.

At this point Reimer's story becomes vaguer and given to more versions than can plausibly be explained by mere age. One day, he says, he overslept (in another version, he fell and briefly knocked himself out) and the squad he commanded went off without him to carry out German orders to kill Jews. When he reached the pit, the Jews had been shot, but a German ordered him to fire into the bodies in the pit. Reimer says he could have been shot if he had not fired his weapon. However, he now asserts, he deliberately fired to miss, even though he knew, he says, that everyone in the pit was dead.

The government brought Simon Friedman, also 79, from his retirement in Florida to testify about the day in July 1944 when Ukrainian guards and SS troops with dogs were shooting prisoners in the Treblinka labor camp. On the march to the pits the prisoners had dug in the forest, Friedman tried to escape but was shot in the wrist and neck. He feigned death, lying in a field until dark, then escaped. Lying there he heard the sounds of mortally wounded prisoners dying slowly in the pits. The point of his testimony was to establish that Reimer could not have known that those in the pit into which he shot were dead.

Immigration law forbids entry to anyone who assisted in Nazi persecution. Being a decorated member of an SS auxiliary unit should be sufficient evidence of such assistance.

Because genocide was routinized, bureaucratized, industrialized, it required the participation of hundreds of thousands of little human cogs in the killing machinery. Hence the notion of the "banality of evil."

It speaks well of American justice that it will not close the books on bestiality until the last participant has felt a frisson of fear and is routed from the land of the free. The evil was incommensurable, but any retribution is an act of remembrance, which still stands between the victims and oblivion.

Washington Post Writers Group