Facing Nazi collaborator John Ivan Demjanjuk




On a regular school day somewhere in 1987 I drove with my 11th grade class from Rehovot to Jerusalem. The bus stopped at "Binyanei Ha''uma", a big convention center at the entrance to Jerusalem and all of us entered the high secured building to take part in a piece of history at the trial of a former Ukrainian Nazi collaborator suspected John Ivan Demjanjuk.


Demjanjuk wasn''t Adolf Eichmann. He wasn''t one of the ''big shots'' of the Nazi regime, he was never mentioned among the history pages of the worst era of humanity and his name never crossed our minds until 1983 when Israel applied for his extradition from the USA.


Demjanjuk never confessed and never regretted being a war criminal taking part in the biggest massacre in history but so many evidences showed he did. He did, like many other European people did participate in this poor chapter in the world''s history.


On April 1988 the Israeli district court found Demjanjuk guilty of all charges and sentenced him to death by hanging. This was only the 2nd time in Israel''s court history that this sentence was given (after the 1st for Eichmann in 1962).


On 1993 the verdict was overturned by Israel''s Supreme Court for "reasonable doubt" and he was released from court and went back to his Ohio home at age of 73.


18 Years later, in Germany on 2011 Demjanjuk was convicted again, now by a German court as an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews during World War II and was sentenced to 5 years in prison. He didn''t live to see the end of his time as he died this morning at age of 92 in Germany, waiting for his appeals to be heard.


Most of the "Demjanjuks" never paid for what they did, never were sentenced and never were chased by the after World War II governments. Europe wanted to continue to a better future and many European societies never dealt with the blackened past they were a part of.


Most of the "Demjanjuks" never had to face the guilt, never confessed and never denied. They did not have to because no one ever demanded them to do so. This Demjanjuk had to face the past and his part in the Holocaust. The others never did.


Demjanjuk did not kill 27,900 Jews alone. He was a part of a system of many people who participated in an unimaginable act of evil. It was ok to hate Jews, it was ok to chase and hunt Jews and it was ok to kill Jews. Demjanjuk did exactly what his roommates, friends and neighbors did. They were all a part of it in so many societies in Europe.


The big moral question of the after World War II society is: "What would you have done?"


We know what Demjanjuk did and what role did he play in this frantic era, but what would you have done?


I believe this was the biggest contribution that Demjanjuk''s trial had. It showed an old American immigrant who lived in the wrong part of the world in the wrong time of history who decided to play the devil in the show. Many others did the same. Only a few decided to play the angels and chose to stay human.


The fact that Demjanjuk had to spend the last 26 years of his life as a living evidence for a European generation who didn''t do anything against the Nazis is his contribution to my generation who could ask himself, watching Demjanjuk''s trials: "What would I have done, if I would have lived then ?" Would I become a Demjanjuk or would I become a human being ? Never try to underestimate this question. This is the biggest moral question of life.


And there is another point of light that the people living in the State of the Jewish people can see: an Israeli court released a Nazi collaborator who was responsible for the murder of 27,900 Jewish people just because he was not exactly 100.00% sure that the old man who stood in front of him is actually John Ivan Demjanjuk. We Israelis can be very proud of our supreme court for this verdict.


Chami Zemach

The Israeli Family project

Moshav Kadesh Barnea

[email protected]