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Demjanjuk: A powerful verdict, bitterly undermined

May 13, 2011 01:06

Comment: One can only hope that the appeal will be expedited so that the Nazi war criminal can serve his fully justified prison sentence.

Nazi guard John Demjanjuk.

John Demjanjuk 311 (R). (photo credit:REUTERS)

Dedicated to the memory of Berta (Betty) David z"l, who was deported to Sobibor from Holland on July 23, 1943, and was murdered in the camp, and to the grandmother of my neighbor Yehuda David.

The conviction in Munich of Ivan Demjanjuk brings to a successful end one of the longest and most difficult cases of a Nazi war criminal.

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It started in the United States, to which Demjanjuk emigrated from occupied Germany after World War II; continued in Israel, to which he was extradited as “Ivan the Terrible,” who ran the gas chambers in the Treblinka death camp; returned to the States after his expulsion from Israel following the discovery of testimony which raised reasonable doubt about his identity; and finally concluded successfully in Germany, where his identity as an armed SS Wachmann (guard) at the Sobibor death camp was confirmed by a German court.

In that respect, the legal process reflects the different efforts being made to bring Nazi war criminals to trial in different countries. Thus Demjanjuk was tried for immigration and naturalization violations in the United States, where Holocaust perpetrators cannot be tried for the crimes they committed during the Shoah, but on criminal charges in Israel and Germany, as is the case in the rest of the world.

There is no question that Thursday’s verdict sends a very powerful message that it is still possible today to hold Nazi war criminals accountable. Given the commonly held perceptions that either no Nazi war criminals are still alive or that all those alive are doddering old men about to die – a perception which Demjanjuk tried very hard to foster during the course of his trial – the verdict rings loud and clear.

The issue is not the admittedly advanced age of the defendants, but their physical and mental health. In that respect, I try to respond to those who question the sagacity of such trials that they should look at the defendants and not be fooled by their attempts to solicit sympathy by appearing as frail and helpless as possible. On the contrary, they should think of them as those who, at the height of their physical strength and prowess, invested all their energy in the mass murder of innocent civilians.

Thus, empathy for the perpetrators is really what I refer to as the “Misplaced Sympathy Syndrome” – the individuals in question are the last people on earth who deserve any empathy, since they had no mercy whatsoever for their helpless victims.

In this context, the subsequent decision of the court to release Demjanjuk, pending his appeal and the ratification of his sentence was, in my opinion, particularly inappropriate. He was convicted for his role as an accessory to the murder of approximately 30,000 Jews, not for some inconsequential or relatively harmless offense, and the release cast a stain on the impact of the verdict and its symbolic significance.

One can only hope that the appeal will be expedited so that Demjanjuk can serve his fully justified prison sentence.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office. His most recent book is Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (Palgrave/Macmillan).
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