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It took several nervewracking months, but yesterday German prosecutors finally announced the decision that was long awaited in Washington and in Israel. Germany will seek the extradition of Ukrainian Nazi war criminal Ivan Demjanjuk from the United States for crimes he committed at the Sobibor death camp.
As a first step in that process, they issued an arrest warrant for the former wachmann (camp guard), who also served in the Majdanek death camp, the SS training camp at Trawniki, Poland, and the concentration camps at Flossenberg and Regensberg in Germany.
Thus it appears that closure might finally be achieved in one of the most prominent, yet misunderstood cases of a Nazi war criminal in three decades.
Part of the confusion stems from the legal situation in the United States, where Nazi war criminals cannot be prosecuted on criminal charges for their wartime crimes, because they were committed outside the US and not against American citizens.
Rather than ignore the numerous Holocaust perpetrators who emigrated to America under false pretenses, the US decided to press charges against them for immigration and naturalization violations, but the maximum penalty for these offenses was loss of US citizenship and deportation.
Thus, when Demjanjuk was originally convicted in the US for these crimes (on the basis of his identification as "Ivan the Terrible," who operated the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp and murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews), the Americans tried to ensure that he would also be tried on criminal charges and punished for these crimes. This led to his extradition to Israel, where he could be tried for genocide and crimes against the Jewish people, which were far more appropriate charges in this case.
Demjanjuk was originally convicted and sentenced to death in Israel, but during his appeal process, doubts arose as to his identity as "Ivan the Terrible" from Treblinka, after the testimony was found of 30 former guards of the camp who were tried in Kiev and testified that the Ukrainian named Ivan who operated the gas chambers had a very prominent scar on his cheek, which was not the case with Demjanjuk.
As a result, Israel's Supreme Court, contrary to popular perception, did not acquit Demjanjuk, but rather convicted him of a far lesser crime - membership in a Nazi organization, which carried a punishment of seven years in prison. He had already served this time and was therefore expelled from the country.
Demjanjuk was able to return to the US and even reacquire his American citizenship, but to the credit of the Office of Special Investigations in the US Justice Department, they again prosecuted him, this time for his service as a wachmann at Sobibor, Trawniki, Flossenberg and Regensberg.
They succeeded in stripping him of his US citizenship and obtained a deportation order, but until Wednesday, no country was willing to accept and prosecute him for his role in the murders in the camps he served in.
Thus, Wednesday's decision by the German prosecutors is of great significance, because it creates a strong likelihood that a person who actively participated in the mass murders of Jews will not only be tried, but will finally be given an appropriate punishment. The fact that this is taking place more than 60 years after the war sends a powerful message that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators of the Holocaust and that old age should not afford a refuge for merciless killers.
Hopefully, as in the case of the Eichmann trial in 1961, which sparked renewed efforts in Germany to prosecute Nazi war criminals who otherwise would probably never have been brought to trial, I sincerely hope the decision to prosecute Demjanjuk will help create the political will to bring additional Nazi war criminals to justice and inspire those countries facing this issue to proceed with the courage and determination required to hold Holocaust perpetrators accountable.
Belated justice, with all its problems, still sends a very powerful message about what our attitude should be toward those who commit mass murder.
The writer is director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center - www.operationlastchance.org.