Demjanjuk’s Death Leaves Decades Of Questions Unanswered

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Israeli judges hold photos during John Demjanjuk's 1987 trial.(Photo: Flickr)
Israeli judges hold photos during John Demjanjuk's 1987 trial.(Photo: Flickr)

John Demjanjuk died over the weekend at the age of 91. He was the central figure in one of the longest running legal cases against an alleged Nazi war criminal. Prosecutors in the U.S., Israel and Germany spent over three decades trying to prove that he helped herd thousands of victims to their deaths as a prison camp guard in Poland.

But family and friends claim that Demjanjuk himself was the victim of mistaken identity.

Recapping the Case

It’s 1986 and the cameras are focused on the man in the back of an Israeli prisoner transport vehicle. The newspapers have labeled him as “Ivan the Terrible”. He leans toward the white wire mesh screen that separates him from the reporters to argue otherwise.

“I am not ‘Ivan the Terrible,’” Demjanjuk yells. “I am a good man.”

John Demjanjuk spent the last third of his life denying charges that he was a Nazi war criminal. Until the mid 1970s, the Ukrainian immigrant had lived a quiet life in suburban Cleveland. Then came accusations from several Holocaust survivors that he was a notorious guard at the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland during World War II.

“The issue is very simple: John Demjanjuk was definitely a death camp guard,” says Marvin Hier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based Jewish human rights group. He has little patience for those who questioned why an octogenarian was put on trial for alleged crimes that occurred 65 years ago.

“He lived to a full, ripe old age to enjoy his children and grandchildren. He attended their birthdays, their wedding celebrations. None of his victims had that privilege. They went directly to the gas chambers.”

First Trial

John Demjanjuk was tried and convicted in Israel on war crimes charges in 1988. He was sentenced to death by hanging. Demjanjuk attorney John Gill says his client just wasn’t man they thought he was.

“When you were in the trial, you could see that the focus was that it was just a horrendous, horrendous killing of people, and therefore there had to be a punishment for it. And the trouble is — it was the wrong person.”

Conviction Abandoned

But, before his death sentence could be carried out, John Demjanjuk won a reprieve, thanks largely to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Old war records were released that indicated someone else had been Ivan the Terrible.

War crimes scholar Michael Scharf says this revelation led the Israeli Supreme Court to reverse Demjanjuk’s conviction in 1993, sending him back home to Cleveland.

“So, the Soviet Union actually ended up saving his life from the death penalty. But, those same documents suggested that he was, in fact, a guard.”

Second Trial

But at a different Nazi death camp in the Polish village of Sobibor, near the Ukrainian border. During the four months in 1943 that Demjanjuk is said to have been stationed at Sobibor, nearly 28,000 people were killed. Based on the new evidence, in 2009, federal officials deported Demjanjuk for a second trial this time in Germany.

Demjanjuk’s Legacy

Questions about the “real” John Demjanjuk remained until the end. Critics claimed Demjanjuk was acting the part of a sick, feeble old man to gain sympathy. His supporters countered that the Munich proceedings were a “show trial” that the Germans put on to assuage a national sense of collective guilt.

Legal scholar Michael Scharf says the John Demjanjuk case was probably the last major Nazi war crimes trial. And Scharf, while he doesn’t doubt his guilt, has …some sympathy for the man at the center of it all.

I think Demjanjuk is a tragic figure. I think that maybe he was recruited involuntarily, fell into a situation that was not his choice, got involved with horrible things. And then spent the rest of his life as a model citizen trying to atone for that. But, at the end of the day, justice caught up with him.

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