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Allan A. Ryan Jr., who tracked down WWII Nazi war criminals in the US, dies at 77

Allan A. Ryan Jr. in his office at the Justice Department in Washington on June 23, 1983. Mr. 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 Jan. 26 at his home in Norwell, Mass. He was 77.GEORGE TAMES/NYT

Leading a team of lawyers, criminal investigators, and World War II historians, Allan A. Ryan Jr.set out in 1980 to track down former Nazis who had moved to the United States after the war and slipped into quiet, ordinary lives.

“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,” he told the Globe then. “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.”


As head of the US Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, Mr. Ryan spearheaded investigations that led to the deportation of concentration camp guards and higher-level officials who had collaborated with Adolf Hitler’s regime. Some were old enough to be nearing death, lending urgency to his work.

“The clock is ticking, and I hear every second tick off,” Mr. Ryan told the Globe.” These guys are just not going to be around for a long time. Some people say, ‘Haven’t these people suffered enough?’ As far as I can see, they haven’t suffered at all.”

Mr. Ryan, who later was a lawyer in Harvard University’s office of general counsel, and then was director of intellectual property for Harvard Business School Publishing, died of a heart attack in his Norwell home Jan. 26. He was 77.

“This is a job that is being done 30 years after it should have been done,” he said in the 1980 interview about hunting Nazis. “It’s the last shot. It’s got to be done now or not at all.”

Because US laws didn’t allow Mr. Ryan to prosecute suspects for war crimes committed on foreign soil during the Holocaust, he brought cases that accused former Nazis with falsifying immigration documents when they entered this country.


Painstaking research by Mr. Ryan and his team turned up lies on naturalization applications, which led to deportation procedures that sent former Nazis back to countries where they could be prosecuted for their war crimes.

Once there, some were convicted, jailed, and even executed.

One such case involved Feodor Fedorenko, who was a guard at the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland, where Nazis murdered about 800,000 Jews. He later moved to the United States and worked in a Connecticut foundry.

Mr. Ryan was assistant to the solicitor general in the Justice Department when he began working on the Fedorenko case. Through appeals to the US Supreme Court, legal maneuverings stretched into Mr. Ryan’s time leading the Office of Special Investigations.

“He was armed with a rifle and a pistol and was issued a uniform,” Mr. Ryan wrote in a 1980 letter to the editor of the Globe, recounting what Fedorenko admitted under oath, once the former guard’s past came to light.

“He fired upon escaping prisoners in the Treblinka uprising in 1943,” Mr. Ryan wrote. “Later, when he applied to emigrate to the United States, he deliberately fabricated a wholly false background and intentionally perjured himself so he could enter the United States undetected.”

Ultimately, Fedorenko was deported to the then-Soviet Union, where a court sentenced him to death and he was executed.

Mr. Ryan also was involved in the complicated prosecution of John Demjanjuk and authored a comprehensive report that prompted the US government to apologize for its actions in helping Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie escape French justice after World War II.


In the United States, he said, many former Nazis had been allowed to live untroubled lives without even guilt to disturb their days.

“I see no evidence that any of these men have been slightly discomfited, let alone tormented, by their actions in the past,” a New York Times 1985 editorial quoted Mr. Ryan as saying.

“I know of no Nazi war criminal who has come forth to say, ‘At last you have found me out. Let me unburden my conscience.’ "

Born in Cambridge on July 3, 1945, Allan Andrew Ryan Jr. was the oldest of eight sisters and brothers. His father, Allan Sr., was a certified public accountant. His mother, Anne Conway Ryan, was a homemaker.

During Mr. Ryan’s childhood, his family moved to Newton. After he finished high school, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College, where he studied government and political science.

In 1970, he graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School, and then clerked for US Supreme Court Associate Justice Byron R. White, before serving as a Marine Corps captain.

“When I was in law school, I devised a clever way to beat the draft by joining the Marines later,” he told The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, in 1993.


An honors graduate of the Naval Justice School, he served from 1971 to 1974, most of that time in the Judge Advocate Division.

Mr. Ryan also had been a high school teacher in New Orleans, where he moonlighted as a DJ on a rock radio station.

“He taught civics with a very open, inquisitive mind, but without him imposing any opinions on us,” recalled the writer Walter Isaacson, who was among Mr. Ryan’s high school students.

“He had a wry humor that helped provoke classroom discussions,” Isaacson said, “and he was the type of person you wanted to keep in touch with the rest of your life — and we did.”

From 1974 to 1977, Mr. Ryan was an associate at the Williams & Connolly law firm in Washington, D.C., where he met a coworker, Nancy Foote. They married in 1978, and she later occasionally taught in elementary schools.

Mr. Ryan served as assistant to the US solicitor general from 1977 to 1980, and as director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, criminal division, from 1980 to early 1983. He also was special assistant to the assistant attorney general of the criminal division later in 1983.

At Harvard, Mr. Ryan was a lawyer in the general counsel’s office from 1985 to 2001 and was director of intellectual property for Harvard Business School Publishing until his death.

“He lived an incredible life,” said Mr. Ryan’s son, Andrew of Weymouth.

“Among his many accomplishments, what impresses me most is what I can speak to directly: what a truly great dad he was,” Andrew said. “And together with my mom, the love of his life, they were the best parents.”


Always providing guidance and support, Mr. Ryan “was present at every day of chemo when I got sick,” Andrew wrote, and “he was there for us when we needed him, which we always did.”

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Ryan leaves a daughter, Elisabeth of Brighton; four brothers, Peter of Foxborough, Michael of Weston, John of Essex, and Matthew of Salem; and three sisters, Patricia Eline of Seekonk, Lisbeth Kundert of Concord, and Caroline Morgan of Vermont.

A memorial gathering will be announced.

Mr. Ryan wrote books that often drew from his legal experiences, among them “Quiet Neighbors: Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals in America,” published in 1984. He also taught various college courses.

“I was lucky enough to co-teach a class called ‘The Constitution and the Media’ with him at Harvard Extension School for 13 years,” Elisabeth wrote in an e-mail, adding that they taught the first course of the current semester a few hours before he died.

“He loved teaching — he taught classes on war crimes, voting rights, the First Amendment, and the entire Constitution,” she said. “He especially loved Harvard Extension School and Harvard Summer School because he was able to teach ‘nontraditional’ students who may not have otherwise been able to access a true Harvard education. He easily could have taught his classes at Harvard College or Harvard Law School, but he chose to remain in the continuing education schools for that reason.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at