Nazi war criminal Demjanjuk dies at 91 in Germany

Former Ohio autoworker was stripped of US citizenship and convicted of helping murder 28,000 Jews at Sobibor.

John Demjanjuk 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Sebastian Widmann/Pool)
John Demjanjuk 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Sebastian Widmann/Pool)
John Demjanjuk, whose trial in Israel on suspicion of being the notorious death camp guard “Ivan the Terrible” gripped the nation during the 1980s and 1990s, died in southern Germany on Saturday at the age of 91.
The Bavarian police said Demjanjuk died in the early morning at the care home near Rosenheim, south of Munich, where he had been living.
Demjanjuk was planning to appeal his conviction in Munich last year for helping to murder 28,000 Jews at Sobibor, a German death camp where he was a guard.
He was sentenced to five years in prison but freed, pending appeal, because of his age.
He denied the charges against him but otherwise did not speak at his trial.
The court said in its verdict that guards played a key role at camps such as Sobibor, where at least 250,000 Jews are thought to have been killed despite the presence of only 20 German SS officers.
Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian, was recruited by the Germans in 1941 from among captured Soviet soldiers, to guard concentration camps in Eastern Europe where the Final Solution, the Nazi plan to annihilate European Jewry, was being carried out.
After World War II he emigrated to the US where he changed his name from Ivan to John and lived in anonymity. During the late 1970s, authorities discovered his wartime past and accused him of being Ivan the Terrible, the nickname given to a sadistic guard at the Treblinka death camp in occupied Poland. He was extradited to Israel in 1986 where he became the second person – and so far the last – indicted in a local court for committing atrocities against Jews during the Holocaust.
The lengthy and emotional trial drew international attention, and in 1988 he was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. But the defense argued in its appeal that Demjanjuk was the victim of mistaken identity, and in 1993 the Supreme Court overturned the ruling. In their verdict the justices wrote they believed Demjanjuk had been a guard at a concentration camp but that the evidence could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was Ivan the Terrible.
“The importance of everything that happened was in how it put on the table once more the things that were done [to the Jews]. The main thing is that it is not forgotten, that humanity learns a lesson from this,” former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, who was on the court when it overturned Demjanjuk’s conviction, said on Saturday.
Demjanjuk returned to the US but legal procedures against him for his role during WWII continued until his extradition to Germany in 2009, where he was tried as an accomplice to mass murder.
He attended the 18 months of court proceedings in Munich in a wheelchair and sometimes while lying down.
Prosecutors – working on the case for more than 60 year since the war’s end – faced several hurdles in proving his guilt, with no surviving witnesses to his crimes and heavy reliance on wartime documents, namely a Nazi ID card indicating he had worked at Sobibor.
“This is the first time a war criminal was convicted in Germany without proof of a specific crime,” said Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel. “This has paved the way for more to come.”
Zuroff, who spoke on Saturday over the phone from Riga, Latvia, where he attended an anti-fascist rally, said the legal precedent could lead to the trial of up to 80 other former guards.
“If only 2 percent of the 4,000 people who guarded the camps then are alive then we might convict up to 80 people,” he said.
The Jewish official said his organization was offering a reward of up to 25,000 euros for the indictment and conviction of a Nazi war criminal.
Demjanjuk’s son, John Demjanjuk Jr., said on Saturday that his father died as a “victim and survivor of Soviet and German brutality since childhood,” AP reported.
“He loved life, his family and humanity,” Demjanjuk Jr. said. “History will show Germany used him as a scapegoat to blame helpless Ukrainian POWs for the deeds of Nazi Germans.”
Zuroff, who has spent years tracking down perpetrators of atrocities against Jews during the Holocaust, said he felt indifferent toward news of Demjanjuk’s death. His only regret was that the former Nazi guard died in an old age home and not behind bars.