Photographs published on Tuesday were the first to document the late John Demjanjuk’s presence at the Nazi death camp of Sobibor, eight years after a German court found him guilty of involvement in the murders of 28,000 Jews there.
Demjanjuk, who denied he had been at Sobibor, a camp built in Poland during the Nazi occupation, had an appeal pending against that verdict when he died in 2012.
Two of the previously unseen photographs from an archive said to have belonged to the camp’s deputy commander show a man resembling Demjanjuk pictured with other guards. Researchers say the man in the photographs, which were taken 77 years ago, resemble the photo on Demjanjuk’s Nazi identity card.
German historians say the photographs disprove Demjanjuk’s denial of having ever served at the camp or playing a role in implementing the Final Solution.
Berlin’s Topography of Terror museum said last week that the photos were found among items that belonged to Johann Niemann, deputy commandant of Sobibor, who was killed by a Jewish prisoner wielding an ax during a 1943 prisoner uprising.
The museum said that Demjanjuk appeared in two of the photos found among a trove uncovered at Niemann’s estate. It added that the collection documents Nazi crimes in Poland during Operation Reinhard, a period covering 1941 through 1943 when 1.7 million Jews were murdered at the Sobibor, Treblinka and Belzec death camps.
The collection, which Niemann’s grandson gave to German historians researching Nazi war crimes a few years ago, contains 361 photographs with rare views of Sobibor and other places where Niemann served from the 1930s through 1943. Fifty of the pictures were taken by Nazis serving at Sobibor, and they focus on the “camp experience” of the Nazis – parties, dinners, dances and alcohol consumption – a very short distance from the gas chambers were Jews were being murdered.
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The photographs show the camp’s entrance gate, bearing a sign that reads “Sonderkommando,” and homes surrounded by yards with flowers and livestock as well as staff quarters that look like resort lodging. Hardly any of the pictures show Jewish prisoners. In some of them, some Jewish forced laborers and guards can be barely discerned.
Researchers showed the photographs to camp survivors to complete their work, among them Semyon Rosenfeld, who died a year ago in Israel.
Some photographs show other stops on Niemann’s murderous path: places where tens of thousands of German invalids were killed as part of the T4 (euthanasia) program, the Sachsenhausen and Belzec camps, and his service at Sobibor from September 1942 through his death in October 1943. The collection shows Nazis wearing costumes, enjoying entertainment and smiling while kayaking. Hitler appears in one of the pictures.
The photographs, which have been sent to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, will also appear in a new book being called “Photographs from Sobibor” (“Fotos aus Sobibor”) published in Germany by Metropol. The project is overseen by an institute studying Nazi war crimes at Stuttgart University and the Stanislaw Hantz Educational Center.
The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was taken prisoner by the Germans during World War II. He later became a death camp guard after undergoing training at a camp called Trawniki along with dozens of Soviet prisoners who had been assigned to work with the SS. The guards were involved in all stages of extermination at the camps, from guard duty to pushing prisoners into gas chambers to execution by gunfire.
Demjanjuk immigrated to the United States after the war, finding employment as an autoworker in Cleveland, Ohio. He was twice stripped of U.S. citizenship amid suspicions of involvement in Nazi war crimes. He was extradited to Israel in the mid 1980s where he was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1988 of being the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” guard who operated the gas chambers at Treblinka death camp. That verdict was overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court in 1993, which cited questions about his identity.
Demjanjuk was the first alleged Nazi war criminal tried in Israel since Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann, who was tried and executed in 1962.
After his acquittal, Demjanjuk returned to the United States but was extradited again, this time to Germany, in 2009. There he was convicted of involvement in the murders of 28,000 Jews at Sobibor and sentenced to five years in prison. He died in 2012 at the age of 91 while waiting to appeal that verdict. A German court pronounced him “still technically presumed innocent” because he died before his appeal could be heard.
Demjanjuk denied serving in any death camps until his dying day and also denied helping the Nazis carry out the Final Solution. He had said he was actually a Nazi victim himself – a prisoner of war. His attorneys said he was convicted based on fabricated documents that said he had served at Sobibor.
German historian Martin Cüppers, one of the leaders of the new study, said the identification of Damjanjuk in one of the pictures was carried out through a biometric examination by the German police.
Damjanjuk's son, John Demjanjuk Junior, wrote in response, quoted by Reuters: "The photos are certainly not proof of my father being in Sobibor and may even exculpate him once forensically examined."