John Demjanjuk has one of those names people vaguely remember from high-school civics classes. His deportation to Israel in 1986 was a big story. He’s been in and out of courts in Israel, the United States, and Germany ever since. Today the Associated Press reports that a German court has convicted him of “28, 060 counts of being an accessory to murder,” and sentenced him to five years in prison.
Demjanjuk was born in the Ukraine, and lived in both the Soviet Union and Germany for a while, before immigrating to Cleveland in 1952. It’s those years in eastern Europe that became of such interest to prosecutors across the Western world, because Demjanjuk is accused of working for the Nazi SS as a prison camp guard.
Demjanjuk says he served in the Red Army before the Germans captured him in Crimea in 1942 and stuffed him in a series of horrific prison camps for the next two years. He claims to have eventually joined “a Nazi-backed unit of Russian soldiers fighting communist rule,” as a BBC profile puts it.
Prosecutors instead maintain that he worked for the Nazis as a guard at a concentration camp. The Israelis thought he was “Ivan the Terrible,” a monster who murdered Jews with poison gas and swords at Treblinka, which was one of Hell’s outposts on Earth. Demjanjuk was convicted and sentenced to hang in 1988, but returned to the United States in 1993 when evidence that another man was Ivan the Terrible came to light.
The Israeli Supreme Court never declared Demjanjuk “innocent.” They were convinced that he was a concentration camp guard, at a different camp. Among the crucial pieces of evidence is an SS identity card, which shows he was trained as a camp guard and posted to the Sobibor concentration camp in Poland. Over the years, most authorities have concluded this card is genuine, although back in 1986 the FBI field office in Cleveland said “evidence and allegations” suggested it was “quite likely fabricated by the KGB.”
In 2008, German prosecutors announced they had gathered enough evidence to indict Demjanjuk as an accessory to the murders committed at Sobibor. By this point, he was 88 years old, and claimed he was too old to travel. His claims were exposed as a fraud by secret recordings, and he was bundled off to Munich in 2009.
His trial lasted a year and a half, and ended with the judge’s determination that he was indeed part of the Nazi “machinery of destruction.” The Associated Press notes “there was no evidence he committed a specific crime. The prosecution was based on the theory that if Demjanjuk was at the camp, he was a participant in the killing — the first time such a legal argument has been made in German courts.”
Demjanjuk was sentenced to five years in prison, but released while awaiting an appeal. There is no word on whether he’d get any credit for time served during his trial. He’s currently 91 years old.
Haaretz reports that Nazi hunters hailed the conviction of Demjanjuk. “This decision sends a very powerful message that even many years after the crimes of the Holocaust, the perpetrators can still be held accountable for their crimes,” said Efraim Suroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “This is very, very important.”
“There must never be impunity or closure for those who were involved in mass murder and genocide, irrespective of their age,” added President Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress.
Simon Wiesenthal himself passed on in 2005, but his work is not quite finished. The Wisenthal Center is now protesting the refusal of Bavarian authorities to honor a European warrant for Klaas Faber, sentenced to death in 1947 for his membership in a Gestapo death squad.
The case of John Demjanjuk has been long, and filled with unexpected twists. Timeless evil demands relentless justice. It would be good to say the Nazi hunters are prosecuting the last aging perpetrators of the final genocide, but that wouldn’t be true. There have been others. May their victims have equally tireless champions, and may those champions speed the day when there are no more mass murders to prosecute.