Small-fry or Mass Murderer? Demjanjuk Took His Secret to the Grave

Israel should spend its money on the survivors, not on hunting nonagenarian Nazis.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

John Demjanjuk, who died on Saturday morning 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. These lawyers took away Demjanjuk's last three decades, forcing the former auto-factory worker to fight two extradition battles and two war-crime 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 Demjanjuk was "Ivan" even after Israel's Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1993 and the death sentence that went with it.

Accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk arrives in a courtroom in Munich April 13, 2011. Credit: Reuters

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A Munich court last year sentenced Demjanjuk to five years in prison after convicting him as an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews in the Sobibor camp, during the period he was supposedly 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 of whom are still alive.

Was it worth the untold resources spent on Demjanjuk's prosecution? After Adolf Eichmann's capture, in 1960, the State of Israel ended its efforts to find Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice. The Mossad agents who were sent all the way to Argentina to abduct Eichmann were needed for more immediate missions, closer to home. Despite the fact that many senior Nazis were still free, the hunt was called off.

For Israelis the Eichmann trial was a cathartic event. It had helped many of the survivors to come to terms with their experiences and to gain a degree of respect in the young state that had little patience for them in its earliest years. The trial proved fundamental in educating the younger generation, and on the national level it helped to position the Jewish state as the heir to the Jewish tragedy.

There was really no reason for another trial. But when, 20 years later, survivors involved in another Nazi war crime investigation picked out Demjanjuk's picture, almost by coincidence, the Likud government decided it deserved its own Eichmann trial.

But 40 years after Treblinka was burned to the ground, no one looked the same, memories were less reliable, the documents were questionable. Unlike Eichmann, who had been an important SS official, Demjanjuk was just another Ukrainian guard among many, if that.

The trial, which began with great fanfare and built up to the death sentence, descended into farce during the appeal at the hands of defense attorney Yoram Sheftel. The only shining moment was the decision by five Supreme Court justices to acquit Demjanjuk, despite the public yearning to see him hanged. He was permitted to return to Cleveland despite the shadow still hanging over him, this time for allegedly being a guard at Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenburg camps.

Demjanjuk eventually lost his U.S. citizenship for a second time and in 2009 he was deported to Germany. He was tried again, this time as an accessory to mass murder. He was given just five years in prison, and even this sentence was suspended by the German judge.

There is no statute of limitation on war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is how it should be, but we are long past the moment when we must ignore the last of the Nazis and Nazi collaborators - men of failing health in their late 80s and nineties - and focus all our attention and available funds on the remaining Holocaust survivors. Every cent spent on tracking down and prosecuting these doddering relics of the Third Reich is one less that can be spent on insuring that their victims can live out their last years with dignity and respect.



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