Demjanjuk big head 248.88.
(photo credit: )
One after another, more than 30 years ago, a series of Holocaust survivors identified John Demjanjuk, a strapping, round-faced Ukrainian who had come to live in the United States, as "Ivan the Terrible," the sadist who ran the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp.
One after another, Josef Czarny, Pinhas Epstein, Eliahu Rosenberg and others testified against Demjanjuk in Jerusalem, describing the "satisfaction and gratification" he took from breaking the bones of his victims and the relish with which he pumped carbon monoxide into the gas chambers.
But the survivors, so confident in their identification, were mistaken. At Demjanjuk's 1993 Supreme Court appeal, it became clear from the testimonies of Treblinka guards who had been tried and executed by the former Soviet Union in the 1940s, 50s and 60s - evidence that the FSU had previously declined to make available - that Treblinka's "Ivan" was a man named Ivan Marchenko, older and darker-haired than Demjanjuk, and scarred on one cheek.
John Demjanjuk was not "Ivan the Terrible." In the memorable words of Efraim Zuroff, the Nazi-hunter who heads the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Israel office, however, "He was another terrible Ivan."
ZUROFF APPEALED in vain to have Demjanjuk tried here for his involvement as an accessory to the murder of 29,700 Jews at Sobibor, the Polish death camp where he was a guard.
Demjanjuk's own alibis - the claim that he had been a Red Army soldier captured by the Germans in the Crimea, then held in a prisoner of war camp - had been dismissed at his 1988 trial in the face of the documentary evidence of his own signed ID card from the SS training camp at Trawniki in Poland, which recorded his transfer to Sobibor.
But the Supreme Court, in Zuroff's assessment, "lost its nerve." It overturned Demjanjuk's conviction as "Ivan the Terrible," ruled that he had already served the seven-year jail sentence due a member of a Nazi organization and ordered him deported.
Now, in Germany, the wheels of justice have turned slowly but inexorably forward, and Demjanjuk finds himself in the dock again.
This time, there are no direct, elderly eyewitnesses to point a shaky finger in his direction. But the "totality of evidence," according to the spokeswoman for the Munich state prosecutor, "is overwhelming."
The SS ID card places him incontrovertibly at Sobibor, and his ID number appears on various documents related to the camp. An American court has already established, in a 2002 ruling, that he contributed to the mass murder of Jews. The court was persuaded by evidence compiled by the US Justice Department, which showed that he had given false information about his activities during the Holocaust when gaining American citizenship. Accordingly, he was stripped of that citizenship and, in May of this year, deported to Germany.
The so-called "lowest-ranked person to go on trial for Nazi war crimes" is facing justice there because almost 2,000 of his alleged victims were German Jews. He faces up to seven years in jail if convicted... and if, today aged 89, he lives that long.
MANY, IN Germany and beyond, are discomfited by what they perceive as the hounding of an old and dying man. Many are suggesting that this may prove to be the last headline-making Nazi war crimes case.
In fact, new allegations against suspected Nazi war criminals continue to emerge, hundreds of investigations are ongoing in over a dozen countries, and there have been numerous convictions and legal victories in recent years, relating to members of murderous security police units and concentration camp guards.
Wolfgang Benz, the director of Berlin's Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, said earlier this week that the Demjanjuk trial marked a vital case of Germany "dealing with our past" - a constant obligation, as he saw it. And he noted that "there is no statute of limitations for the crime of murder."
Indeed, the crucial morality at the heart of the new Demjanjuk trial lies in its message that the passage of time in no way diminishes the gravity of the crime and the guilt of its perpetrators, and that there can be no reward for having evaded justice through the decades and into old age.