Nazi War Criminals: Too Old for Justice?

There is a distinct taste of anticlimax in the legal process surrounding the deportation from the United States of John "Ivan" Demjanjuk, which finally reached its peak this week.

There is a distinct taste of anticlimax in the legal process surrounding the deportation from the United States of John "Ivan" Demjanjuk, which finally reached its peak this week with the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear Demjanjuk's petition against the stripping of his citizenship, thereby leaving the way open to his extradition and being put on trial for war crimes.

It wasn't supposed to end like this. Demjanjuk came to prominence in the late 1970s when he was identified as "Ivan the Terrible," the Ukrainian guard who had operated the diesel engines that gassed hundreds of thousands of Jews at the Treblinka death camp and treated prisoners before their extermination with extreme sadism.

Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel in 1983, and his trial was thought to be the last grand war crimes trial of World War II, educating a generation that had not yet been born during the Eichmann trial of 1961 about the horrors of the Holocaust. But after the Jerusalem District Court found him guilty and sentenced him to death in 1988, the Supreme Court ordered him set free when new documents cast doubt over whether he had served at Treblinka.

Demjanjuk returned to the U.S. For the last decade he has been the subject of a new investigation and deportation battle; this time the charge was that he was a guard in other camps and had lied about his past when requesting his U.S. citizenship 50 years ago. Even at this stage, it isn?t clear that he will be deported − and prosecuted. Ukraine, Poland or Germany will have to request his extradition first, a step that none of those countries seems eager to take.

A dying generation

It is highly likely that the 88-year-old Demjanjuk, in ill health, will spend the last years of his life among family and friends in the Ukrainian community in Seven Hills, Ohio. So was it worth it all?

Demjanjuk is on the list of ?Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals,? published last month by the Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem. To read the list of those murderers still at large also feels anticlimactic. Only one of them, Alois Brunner, who was Eichmann?s assistant and organized the deportation of more than 100,000 Jews to death camps, can be said to have been in any way central to the extermination process, and it is widely believed that he died in Syria, though there is no definite confirmation of this. None of those on the list are senior figures in any way ?(Brunner was a captain in the SS?). One of them, Aribert Heim, whose whereabouts are unknown, was a notorious camp doctor who killed hundreds of inmates by lethal injection. The rest are mostly non-German small cogs in the vast Nazi machine who participated in ?police? operations that involved the murder of Jews, Gypsies, partisans and other civilians.

They are all old men, in their late eighties or nineties. Few witnesses remain to speak about their crimes, and legal proceedings would almost inevitably be strung out until their deaths.

How worthy are they of our attention? Should resources that might go to survivors? welfare and the education of a new generation be spent on bringing them to justice?

Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, along with a handful of government officials in the U.S., is one of the few still devoting themselves to the task of bringing these war criminals to justice. The most famous Nazi-hunter of all, Simon Wiesenthal, said in 2003 that his life?s work was complete, and that all the surviving mass murderers had been brought to trial. ?I have survived them all,? he said. ?If there were any left, they?d be too old and weak to stand trial today. My work is done.?

Zuroff and an increasingly small band of diehards still believe the remaining small fry should be pursued to the end of their days. Few governments or major Jewish organizations are prepared to support them. Their efforts are quite frankly seen as an embarrassment and a hindrance to Israel?s diplomatic relations with Eastern European countries. However, Zuroff argues that no one can give the surviving criminals immunity from justice on behalf of the millions of victims, that their prosecution is a comfort to Holocaust survivors and that his work sets an example for both the perpetrators and the victims of other genocides.

In response to the charge that putting elderly men on trial serves only to reawaken anti-Jewish feelings, he says the real cause of new waves of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe are the much larger efforts to regain Jewish property in those countries, which is worth billions of dollars. Very few resources go to Nazi-hunting, he says, and that could hardly be described as detracting from other priorities. He is essentially a one-man operation, so why should anyone complain? But perhaps the question is whether anyone should be doing this at all on behalf of the Jewish people or the civilized world?

The relationship between ?freelance? Nazi-hunters and the governments concerned with Nazi victimes, including the Israeli government, was always tense. The argument over who deserves the credit for locating Eichmann, went on for decades. But there was some agreement on the need to prosecute the murderers.

Today, it seems, governments and the world?s Jewish leaders are hoping the issue will go away as soon as possible, that the last Nazi collaborator will simply die quietly in some Austrian hamlet − and we can get on with business. But this is too important an issue to be allowed just to fade away, or to remain just the preserve of a few freelancers. The concerned governments must band together, with recognized Jewish leaders, and either set up an international taskforce for a last push to serve justice or declare the matter to be officially closed.