Allan A. Ryan, a Justice Department lawyer who in the early 1980s identified and prosecuted dozens of Nazi collaborators living in the United States, earning him a reputation as America’s foremost Nazi hunter, died on Thursday at his home in Norwell, Mass. He was 77.
His daughter, Elizabeth Ryan, said the cause was a heart attack.
Mr. Ryan was the director of the Office of Special Investigations, a Justice Department unit created in 1979 at the behest of Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, Democrat of New York. She had been shocked to learn that thousands of Nazi collaborators, including concentration camp guards and gas-chamber operators, had come to the United States after the war as refugees, often under assumed names.
They remade themselves: Feodor Fedorenko, a Russian who had served as a guard at the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland, found work at a foundry near New Haven. Until Mr. Ryan won his conviction in 1981, his most egregious infraction had been a single parking ticket. Mr. Fedorenko was deported to the Soviet Union, where he was executed.
Mr. Ryan employed a team of about 20 lawyers, 10 investigators and five historians, and sent them around the world to dig through archives and immigration records. Though he spent only just over three years in the office, he oversaw 700 investigations and 32 prosecutions. The New York Times called him “the nation’s foremost Nazi hunter,” but he insisted that most of his job involved mundane research.
“It’s not cloak-and-dagger stuff,” he told the newspaper in 1985. “It’s more sifting through paper.”
Not that he confined himself to his desk. In 1980 he traveled to the Soviet Union where, despite increasing Cold War tensions, he persuaded Russian officials to open up their World War II records and make available witnesses who had worked alongside suspected Nazis.
In order for the witnesses’ testimony to be admissible in a U.S. court, Mr. Ryan had to ensure that defense attorneys would have a chance to cross-examine them — which meant that, while pursuing Nazi collaborators, he also had to introduce Soviet attorneys to the basics of Western legal procedure.
American law did not permit the government to prosecute suspects for their role in the Holocaust. Instead, Mr. Ryan’s office charged them with lying on their immigration and naturalization applications. Once stripped of their U.S. citizenship, the government could deport them to France, Israel, Germany or another country where they could be tried.
A single case might take Mr. Ryan’s office several years and involve two separate court cases — one to strip a collaborator of citizenship, and a second to deport them. Mr. Fedorenko was first arrested in 1978 and was not deported until 1984. It was slow, plodding work that required a systematic, methodical thinker like Mr. Ryan.
“He really was the groundbreaker,” Ms. Holtzman said in a phone interview. “He set the standard.”
Most of Mr. Ryan’s targets were low-level guards and functionaries, but he also went after relatively high-level targets. Andrija Artukovic had been the interior minister in Nazi-occupied Croatia, where he oversaw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Serbs. He was deported to what was then Yugoslavia in 1986, and died in prison.
Valerian Trifa was a Romanian fascist who had fomented anti-Semitic pogroms, but after immigrating became the archbishop of the Romanian Orthodox Church in the United States and Canada. After Mr. Ryan’s office filed charges, Mr. Trifa renounced his citizenship and, to avoid deportation, moved to Portugal, where he died in 1987.
In 1983 William French Smith, the attorney general, assigned Mr. Ryan to investigate charges that the U.S. Army had helped a former German SS officer, Klaus Barbie, escape from France, where he was wanted for torturing prisoners, in exchange for providing intelligence. Mr. Barbie had settled in Bolivia but was later extradited to France, where he was sentenced to life in prison.
Mr. Ryan’s report was searing. While he conceded that there might have been a national-security reason for employing Mr. Barbie, it had been morally unconscionable to help him escape French justice. He recommended that the U.S. government apologize to France, which, in a rare instance of diplomatic humility, it did.
His most controversial case involved a retired Cleveland autoworker named John Demjanjuk. Eyewitness testimony indicated that he had been the so-called Ivan the Terrible, an especially barbarous guard at the Treblinka camp. The Office of Special Investigations won his deportation to Israel, where he was sentenced to death.
But after the fall of the Soviet Union, evidence emerged that Mr. Demjanjuk had not been Ivan the Terrible; Israel released him in 1991 and he returned to Cleveland. Then, during a subsequent inquiry, former lawyers at the Office of Special Investigations testified that Mr. Ryan and others had withheld evidence calling into question Mr. Demjanjuk’s identity.
Mr. Ryan, who had long since left the federal government, admitted that the evidence had not been shared with Mr. Demjanjuk’s defense team, but that it had been an oversight. A U.S. District Court judge overseeing the inquiry agreed, though another court denounced the office’s “win at any cost” attitude.
Mr. Demjanjuk did not get much respite. The Office of Special Investigations opened a new case against him, charging that he had been a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp, 50 miles from Treblinka. This time the evidence was unassailable, and Mr. Demjanjuk was deported to Germany. He was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of 28,060 Jews and died in 2012, while awaiting appeal.
“The kind of people we’re dealing with were, by and large, very brutal killers for several years in their lives and have turned into model citizens here,” Mr. Ryan told The Boston Globe in 1980. “They don’t have Nazi museums in their basements. They have a lot to hide in their pasts, and the way you do that is to lay low and not call attention to yourself.”
Allan Andrew Ryan Jr. was born on July 3, 1945, in Cambridge, Mass., the oldest of eight children born to Allan Ryan, an accountant, and Anne (Conway) Ryan, a homemaker.
He grew up in Cambridge and Newton, a Boston suburb, and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1966 with a degree in government. He received his law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1970, and later clerked for Justice Byron White on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Along with his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Nancy (Foote) Ryan; his son, Andrew; his brothers Peter, Michael, Matthew and John; and his sisters Tricia Eline, Lisbeth Cundert and Caroline Morgan.
After serving as a captain in the Marine Corps, Mr. Ryan moved to Washington, where he joined the office of the solicitor general. It was there that he was assigned to oversee the government’s appeal in the Fedorenko case, after which he became the deputy director of the then-fledgling Office of Special Investigations. When its first director, Walter Rockler, resigned after just nine months, Mr. Ryan took his place.
Mr. Ryan left the government in 1983 and later worked in the general counsel’s office at Harvard. He taught law classes at Boston College and at Harvard’s extension and summer schools, and served as chairman of the board of Veterans Legal Services, a nonprofit in Massachusetts.
He also wrote several books on genocide and human rights law, including “Quiet Neighbors: Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals in America” (1984). In it he pondered why, after decades of silence, Americans were waking up to the truth of the Holocaust and their country’s role in it.
“A quarter century after the war ended,” he wrote, “a curtain of silence lifted, not least in America. No single event was responsible. It was the coming of age of a new generation, a generation that had not lived through the war and had pressing questions for those who had.”