John Ivan Demjanjuk, who died Saturday at a nursing home in Southern Germany, would have died in a nursing home in Ohio if it had not been for small dogged groups of attorneys in the justice departments of Israel, the United States and Germany, respectively. These lawyers took away Demjanjuk's last three decades, forcing the former auto-factory worker to fight two extradition battles and two war crimes trials, instead of enjoying his retirement.
The Treblinka survivors who identified him as Ivan the Terrible who operated the diesel engines of the death camp's gas chamber, and in his spare time tormented prisoners, continued to believe it was him, even after the Supreme Court in Jerusalem overturned the guilty verdict and death sentence when it acquitted him in 1993. Last year, a Munich court sentenced him to five years imprisonment, finding him guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews in the Sobibor camp during the period in which he was supposed to have been a guard there. Some researchers and journalists are still convinced that the evidence upon which he was convicted was flimsy and possibly concocted by the KGB.
But even if he was Ivan the Terrible, or some other terrible death camp guard, the Ukrainian conscript was at the lowest rung of the extermination machine. There were thousands, if not tens of thousands of murderers and torturers like him. At least hundreds are still alive. Was it worth spending untold resources on his prosecution?
After the capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960, the state of Israel ended its efforts to locate and bring to justice Nazi war criminals. The Mossad agents who had been sent all the way to Argentina to kidnap Eichmann were needed for more immediate missions closer to home, and despite the many senior Nazis still out there, the hunt was called off.
The Eichmann trial was a cathartic event for Israelis. It had helped many of the survivors to come to terms with their experiences and gain a degree of respect in the young state that had little patience for them in its early years. For a younger generation, it had been a fundamental form of education. On a national level, it helped position the Jewish state as the heir of the Jewish tragedy. There was really no reason for another trial. But twenty years later, Demjanjuk's picture was picked out almost by coincidence by survivors in another Nazi war crimes investigation, and the Likud government decided that it also deserved its own Eichmann trial.
However, forty years after Treblinka was burnt to the ground no-one looked the same, memories were less reliable, the documents were questionable and unlike Eichmann who had been a central official in the SS establishment, Demjanjuk was just another Ukrainian guard among many, if at all. The trial, which had begun with much fanfare and built up to the death sentence, descended into a farce as the appeal reached the hands of defense attorney Yoram Sheftel. The only shining moment came when five Supreme Court judges decided to acquit Demjanjuk, despite the public yearning to see him hanged.
Demjanjuk was allowed to return to Cleveland despite the shadow still hanging over him, this time for allegedly being a guard in Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenburg. Ultimately he was to lose his U.S. citizenship a second time, and end up on trial in Germany. There here received only five years in prison for being an accessory to mass-murder, and even this sentence was suspended by the German judge.
There is no statute of limitation on crimes against humanity and war crimes, and this is how it should be. But the moment we have to ignore the last Nazis and collaborators, men of failing health in their late eighties and nineties, and focus all our attention and the available funds on the remaining Holocaust survivors is long past. Every cent spent on tracking down and prosecuting these doddering relics of the Third Reich is taking away from the resources necessary to ensure their victims live out their last years with respect and dignity.
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