Fundamentally Freund: The Demjanjuk disgrace

Fundamentally Freund Th

With the start of his trial earlier this week in Germany, the saga of Nazi guard John Demjanjuk is finally nearing an end. Sixteen years after Israel's Supreme Court overturned his conviction for war crimes and allowed him to walk free, this Ukrainian-born fiend, who is said to have voluntarily joined the SS, will at last be made to pay for his involvement in unspeakable acts of horror at the Sobibor death camp in 1943. "As a guard, he took part in all the various parts of the extermination process after the deportation trains arrived," said German prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz, as he read the 10-page indictment on Monday. "He willingly participated in the killing of the Jews because he wanted them dead for his own racist ideological reasons," Lutz told the court, noting that the defendant unloaded Jews from trains arriving at Sobibor, undressed them and herded them directly to their deaths in the gas chambers. As a result, Demjanjuk is accused of having aided in the murder of 27,900 Jewish souls - men, women and children - enough to fill a small stadium. If found guilty, he could face 15 years in prison which, given his age of 89, would amount to a death sentence. Though more than 60 years have passed since the Holocaust, there is something reassuring about the fact that its perpetrators are still being made to answer for their actions. Normally speaking, the way of the world is to move on and forget. As Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote: "There is no remembrance which time does not obliterate." But the Demjanjuk trial proves once again that the atrocities inflicted on our people in the killing fields of Europe have not become just a stale detail of history. THIS, AT least in part, is thanks to the unwavering efforts of Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center, whose determination has kept the quest for justice very much alive. Zuroff and his organization deserve our collective thanks for cajoling various European governments into remembering not to forget. Fortunately, Demjanjuk's trial will also serve as an important educational tool for a new generation of Germans. It will help to inform them about what their forefathers did to the Jewish people, and remind them of the everlasting debt they owe to our nation. At a time when Europe is turning increasingly hostile both to Jews and to Israel, this is a lesson which bears reinforcing again and again. And yet, despite it all, I can't help but feel that there is something deeply unsettling about this trial. Not because of Demjanjuk's age or alleged infirmity, which some observers have suggested be taken into account. Only a misplaced sense of morality could presuppose that such factors should have any bearing on the case against a man who took part in mass murder. Nor do questions of legal technicality, or the years of proceedings that Demjanjuk has undergone, bother me in the least. The pursuit of justice against those who murdered Jews must know no boundaries of time. More fundamentally, it is the location of this tribunal that disturbs me. With all due respect to the German prosecutor, the trial of John Demjanjuk should have taken place in Jerusalem and not in Munich. Jump back to July 1993. After Demjanjuk had been found guilty of being the infamous killer dubbed "Ivan the Terrible" of Treblinka, his lawyers appealed to Israel's Supreme Court. The justices ruled that the case had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, so they set aside the conviction. But in their decision, the justices also declared that even if Demjanjuk was not "Ivan the Terrible," he had clearly done some terrible things. They found there to be "overwhelming evidence" that Demjanjuk had "participated in murder" at Sobibor, which are the very charges he is now facing in Germany. And the justices also noted that he had been a member of the SS Wachmanner, "whose purpose was murder and whose objective was genocide and whose like is unknown in the history of humanity." Nonetheless, then-attorney-general Yosef Harish turned down pleas from Holocaust survivors and Knesset members alike, and refused to retry Demjanjuk for his crimes at Sobibor. Various petitioners immediately turned to the Supreme Court in an attempt to force Harish's hand before Demjanjuk left the country. Astonishingly, at the hearings, the state's representative, Nili Arad, told the justices that Israel would not pursue further legal proceedings against Demjanjuk, claiming "it is not in the public interest for this man to be put on trial." The justices refused to intervene, sadly demonstrating that a court of law is not always necessarily a court of justice. Shortly thereafter, Demjanjuk returned home to Cleveland a free man. In other words, the State of Israel knowingly and willfully allowed a participant in the Nazi murder machine to escape prosecution in Jerusalem, leaving it to others to do the job. This was nothing less than a disgrace. There was clearly enough evidence to justify putting the Sadist of Sobibor on trial in Israel at the time, but politics and public relations appear to have gotten in the way. And so it took another 16 years to get Demjanjuk back into a courtroom for his evil deeds. Who knows how many of those he tormented may have died in the interim, going to their graves without seeing justice done. Like others, I will follow the Demjanjuk trial through the press in the coming weeks and months, hoping and praying that he gets his due. But the sense of bitterness and disappointment is still there. Israel had this murderer in its hands, and instead we let him go. And for that, there can be no forgiveness.