Demjanjuk: Judgment day for the 'last Nazi'

At 89, John Demjanjuk faces one more trial for crimes against humanity


By Toby Axelrod, November 26, 2009
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A David Rubinger composite image of Demjanjuk as an old man

A David Rubinger composite image of Demjanjuk as an old man

When John Demjanjuk enters Munich District Court II on November 30, it will be the second time he has stood trial for crimes against humanity, allegedly committed during the Second World War.

Sixteen years ago, Israeli courts released Demjanjuk from a death sentence after evidence showed he probably was not the notorious Treblinka guard “Ivan the Terrible”.

This time, the Ukrainian-born 89-year-old is charged with involvement in the murder of 27,900 Jews in the notorious Sobibor death camp in 1943, as an SS guard trained in the Trawniki camps.

Some say it will be the last major Nazi war-crimes case. And prosecutors expect to win.

“We have all the proof we need,” Barbara Stockinger, spokesperson for the State Prosecutor in Munich, said in a telephone interview. “We have his service identity card,” and, she said, his number shows up on many documents related to Sobibor. “The totality of evidence is overwhelming.”

If convicted, Demjanjuk faces several years in a German prison; reportedly, a maximum of seven. By some estimates, the trial could take a couple of years.

Today, the case against him is built in part on evidence gathered by the US Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI), after Demjanjuk returned to the USA from Israel in 1993.

The OSI successfully fought to have Demjanjuk denaturalised, based on him having lied about his Nazi past when applying for US citizenship in the 1950s.

“He came back to the United States [in 1993] saying he would never leave again, but we proved him wrong,” said Eli Rosenbaum, director of the OSI, which first brought deportation hearings against Demjanjuk in 1977.

John Demjanjuk in April this year, being taken from his home in Ohio by US immigration agents before being flown to Munich

John Demjanjuk in April this year, being taken from his home in Ohio by US immigration agents before being flown to Munich

On April 30, 2004, the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Demjanjuk could be denaturalised again, due to clear evidence presented by the OSI that he had served in Nazi death camps Sobibor, Flossenburg and Majdanek.

Demjanjuk exhausted all possible appeals. “The name of the game is delay,” said Mr Rosenbaum. “They string it out as long as possible in the hope that the person dies in freedom in the US. And this happens in some cases.”

But not in Demjanjuk’s. He was deported to Germany on May 11, 2009 and charged on July 13.

Why is he being tried in Germany? Reportedly because 1,900 of his alleged victims were German Jews, and because he stayed in a Munich displaced persons camp after the war.

The German prosecution alleges that Demjanjuk, after being captured by the Germans, received training at the SS facility at Trawniki, in occupied Poland.

Trawniki produced guards for the Aktion Reinhardt death camps: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

All the guards were either former Soviet POWs or Ukrainian and Polish civilians selected or recruited by the Germans, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

At least 167,000 people, mostly Jews, were murdered in the gas chambers of Sobibor during its 18 months of operation. In October 1943, around 300 Jews staged an uprising and escaped; only about 100 survived the war.

Reportedly one of the most damning documents in Demjanjuk’s case is a Schutzstaffel (SS) photo ID card that prosecutors say proves he was a “Trawniki” guard at the camp in 1943, and that he drove thousands of people to their death. Demjanjuk would have been one of between 90 and 120 such guards at the camp.

Demjanjuk insists he merely served in the Soviet army and was captured by Germany in 1942.

Media reports suggest the Demjanjuk trial may be the last of the major Nazi-era war-crimes trials.

“But that’s been said for years, so don’t jump to hasty conclusions,” said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, who plans to attend the opening of the trial.

“This trial is extremely important because it sends a very powerful message that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators,” Mr Zuroff said. “Every victim of the Nazis deserves that an effort be made to find the persons who turned them into victims, so that they can be held accountable for their crimes.”

Whatever else emerges through the trial, it will surely stand as proof that “a liberal, constitutional state really can bring such crimes to justice”, said Sybille Steinbacher, a historian at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität of Jena.

And at the grassroots level, it may also raise awareness among Germans who have lost sight of the terrible reality of the Holocaust. Ms Steinbacher said that the trial, with its statements of fact, “will provide a clear picture of what happened there”. And it must and should bring a painful confrontation with the truth, she said.

“Young people [in Germany] know a lot about the Shoah,” said Angelika Benz, 28, who is writing a PhD on the Trawniki camp and will attend the trial opening. “But the problem is, everybody knows about Auschwitz, Hitler, Himmler and the concentration camps.But there’s not much knowledge about how the mass murder could happen.”

“The crimes committed are so horrible that the civilised world cannot afford to let them go unpunished,” said Eli Rosenbaum, who will be called to testify against Demjanjuk next spring.

“Every opportunity needs to be taken, to send a message to would-be perpetrators of crimes against humanity, that there is a real chance that they will be pursued — not for months or years but if necessary for decades, even into old age and even into countries at great distances from those in which they committed the crimes.”

Last updated: 4:42pm, November 26 2009