BERLIN - One of the key figures responsible for the indictment of John (Ivan) Demjanjuk in Germany will not be at the Munich courthouse when Demjanjuk appears there Monday for the first time, to be tried in the murder of 27,900 Jews.
Despite the crucial role that German jurist Thomas Walther played in bringing Demjanjuk to justice, he now prefers to remain in the background of the highly publicized affair.
Demjanjuk is standing trial for his alleged actions while serving as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in 1942-1943.
Walther is one of the key figures behind the decision to try Demjanjuk, who will be the first non-German alleged Nazi collaborator to stand trial in a German court.
His quest to bring Demjanjuk to justice began with a simple online search, he said.
Walther - who spoke to Haaretz last summer, after Demjanjuk was extradited to Germany from the U.S. - said he began looking into Demjanjuk as an investigator for the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Ludwigsburg.
The 66-year-old ex-judge had been looking into alleged war crimes by two other suspects, Elfriede Rinckel and Paul Henss, suspected guards at Nazi concentration camps. During the course of the investigation, he asked his American counterpart from the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, Eli Rosenbaum, for details about suspects living in the U.S. to see whether they could be tried in Germany.
In the course of this correspondence, Rosenbaum told Walther that Germany had never indicted non-German SS collaborators, claiming it did not have jurisdiction to do so. Walther says this led him to try and find ways to change this.
In February 2008, Walter says he came across Demjanjuk's name on the Justice Department's Web site while reading the verdict from Demjanjuk's appeal against his deportation to Germany, which the 6th Circuit of Appeal rejected.
The whole process revolved around technicalities, such as whether a lower judge should have disqualified himself, Walther said. The central issue of whether Demjanjuk was a guard in Sobibor, as well as the history of the extermination camps and the Holocaust, simply didn't come up.
Recognizing that German law allows for German jurisdiction in cases involving German murder victims, Walther began searching for compatriots who were killed in Sobibor.
Walther finally found evidence of German victims among the Jews who were transported by train to Sobibor from the Westerbork concentration camp in Holland.
Walther's office sought to raise its profile ahead of a visit to the office by German President Horst Kohler that year, where journalists were expected to inquire as to what actions have been taken to bring Demjanjuk to justice, as Walther once told the German publication Die Zeit.
Walther said that the Ludwigsburg office, headed by Kurt Schrimm, initiated the process that led to Demjanjuk's indictment.
To further strengthen his case, Walther sought to show that Demjanjuk was a German resident after WWII. Though Demjanjuk initially lived in refugee camps, his last address before emigrating for the U.S. in 1952 was listed as Feldafing near Munich. And so Walther showed up unannounced at the municipality one day to try to find records of Demjanjuk's stay there. He made an interesting discovery there.
In an interview with a city official in 1952, Demjanjuk said he had spent the war in a place called "Sobobor." The notorious extermination camp Sobibor was relatively unknown in 1952, Walther explained. The name "Sobobor," he says, is almost certainly the result of a mistranscription on the part of the city clerk, possibly caused by Demjanjuk's Ukrainian accent.
That document from Feldafing's city archive is part of the file that Walther's unit gave the Munich prosecution team, with a recommendation to indict him. The German supreme court later ruled that the prosecution did indeed have jurisdiction to do so, creating a precedent that prompted the Ludwigsburg Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes to initiate more probes against non-German suspected accomplices.
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