On this day: John Demjanjuk charged

July 13 2009: Justice at last?

By Jennifer Lipman, July 13, 2011

The old man who was wheeled into the German court may have had little resemblance to the young Nazi soldiers seen in photographs, but in May he was indeed found guilty of some of the most chilling war crimes.

He was sentenced to five years in prison but prosecutors agreed he could remain free pending an appeal.

John Demjanjuk always claimed he had been a prisoner of war, captured as a Red Army soldier. But German prosecutors said there was evidence he was an accessory to murder – on 27,900 counts – and that he willingly served as a concentration camp guard at Sobibor.

The charges referred to Demjanjuk's actions between March and September 1943. But it took years to bring him to justice, as after the war he escaped to the United States and spent years working as car mechanic in Cleveland, Ohio.

In the early 1980s he was accused of being a guard at Treblinka and in 1988 an Israeli court jailed him. But the sentence was subsequently overturned because of questions of mistaken identity, but after more paperwork was discovered he was deported to Germany to face trial.

The US Justice Department looked at the case again in 2002 and revoked his citizenship, giving him a deportation order three years later. The case opened in Munich in 2009, but took more than 18 months to reach a verdict.

Avner Shalev, the chairman of Israeli Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, said when Demjanjuk was sentenced: "The trial and the verdict demonstrate that there is no statute of limitations on the crimes of the Holocaust."

What the JC said: It is a timely reminder that wickedness cannot be measured in degrees, particularly not when it comes to the passage of time. It proved impossible 16 years ago for Jerusalem prosecutors to prove inconclusively that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible. But the Germans believe that they have the evidence to pin Demjanjuk to time spent as a camp guard at Trawniki. What Demjanjuk did during the war is now about to be forensically unpeeled, not a moment too soon.

See more from the JC archives here.

Last updated: 11:05am, July 13 2011