The Demjanuk trial in retrospect

Ukrainian SS death camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk: The longest case of a Holocaust perpetrator.

The sign "Arbeit macht frei" at the main gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The sign "Arbeit macht frei" at the main gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week the German police arrested three men who served as guards at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and raided the homes of six additional suspects from the same camp. As strange as this may appear, these measures, which constitute the largest such action undertaken in Germany in many years, are a direct result of a different and ostensibly unconnected case, which is very-well known, particularly here in Israel.
I am referring to what was most probably the longest-ever case of a Holocaust perpetrator, and one which took place in courts in three different continents over more than three decades – the case of Ukrainian Sobibor SS death camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk.
The Demjanjuk investigation began in the United States in the ‘70s after a list of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators who had emigrated to America in the aftermath of World War II, compiled by journalist Michael Hanusiak, was submitted to the US authorities. According to Hanusiak’s information, Demjanjuk had served at Sobibor, but in the course of the investigation of crimes committed by a Ukrainian guard named Feodor Federenko at the Treblinka death camp, several survivors, among them in particular Israelis Pinchas Epstein and Eliyahu Rosenberg, identified Demjanjuk, whose wartime photo was included in a photo spread album shown to the survivors of Treblinka, as “Ivan Grozny,” or Ivan the Terrible, the man who operated the gas chambers at Treblinka.
On that basis, Demjanjuk was stripped of his US citizenship and extradited to Israel, since the US could not prosecute anybody for crimes committed outside the United States, unless the victims were Americans, which was not true in this case.
The Demjanjuk trial in Israel was therefore about the crimes themselves, not whether he had lied when applying to emigrate to the US or when he filed for American citizenship, as was the case in the US. After a long and very dramatic trial, Demjanjuk was convicted of the crimes committed by Ivan Grozny in Treblinka and sentenced to death.
Under Israeli law, any defendant sentenced to death is automatically granted an appeal against the sentence, and in Demjanjuk’s case this proved crucial, since during that process, the prosecution found testimonies of numerous Treblinka guards which cast serious doubt on his identification as “Ivan the Terrible.”
Under these circumstances, he obviously could not be executed, but there was also documentary evidence that he had served as an armed SS guard at the Sobibor death camp. The problem was that the only witness who had corroborated Demjanjuk’s service in Sobibor and active participation in the murder process in that camp was no longer alive, and could not be cross-examined.
This most probably explains why the Israeli Supreme Court did not agree to retry him for crimes in Sobibor, for which he most likely would have been sentenced to death, and instead convicted him “merely” of membership in a Nazi organization, the punishment for which was seven years’ imprisonment, which Demjanjuk had already served in Ramle prison and expulsion from Israel.
Upon his return to America, Demjanjuk succeeded in re-obtaining his citizenship, but to the credit of the US Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, which was established in 1979 to take legal action against the Nazi war criminals living in the country, they refused to accept his presence in the US and retried him, this time on the basis of his service as an armed SS guard at Sobibor.
The case succeeded and he was again stripped of his American citizenship, but no country was willing to admit him, and it appeared as if he would live out his life in Cleveland despite his second denaturalization. The American authorities, and especially the Office of Special Investigations headed by Eli Rosenbaum, however, mounted an intensive campaign which ultimately convinced the Germans to take Demjanjuk and prosecute him for his service in Sobibor.
The decision to do so was not that simple because there were no live witnesses who could testify that Demjanjuk had committed a specific crime against a specific victim in the camp and for over 50 years that had been the absolute minimum requirement to try a case of a Nazi war criminal in Germany. But lawyers at the Zentrale Stelle (the Central Office for the Clarification of Nazi Crimes) prepared a legal strategy that not only proved successful in this case, but has paved the way for the prosecution of perhaps as many as several dozen perpetrators who were active participants in mass murder of Jews on a daily basis for lengthy periods of time, but until now had never been prosecuted.
The prosecutor’s case basically claimed that any armed SS personnel in a “pure death camp” like Sobibor, whose sole purpose was the mass murder of Jews, was automatically guilty of at least accessory to murder, even if no evidence was presented to the court of a specific crime committed by the defendant. That argument was accepted by the court in Munich, which convicted Demjanjuk in spring 2011 and paved the way for a comprehensive search by the German authorities for all those still alive who served in death camps and in the Einsatzgruppen (special mobile killing squads), whose primary purpose was also mass murder.
This past September, Kurt Schrimm, the director of the Zentrale Stelle, announced that 30 such persons had been located living in Germany and seven others had been found residing in other countries (including one in Israel, whose identity has still not been revealed by the Israeli Justice Department, despite our efforts to obtain the information), and that he was recommending that they all be prosecuted for their role in the largest Nazi death camp. Last week’s arrests and raids were the first practical large-scale results of this monumental change in German prosecution policy, which we hope will yield significant results.
In that respect, it will be a matter of time and health, as local prosecutors in the areas where the suspects reside will, we hope, expedite these cases to ensure that justice can be achieved in as many cases as possible.
The Demjanjuk case left many Israelis disappointed and frustrated and justifiably so, but ultimately thanks to the efforts of the Americans and Germans, it ultimately had a very unexpected and surprising beneficial effect on the efforts to bring quite a few Holocaust perpetrators to justice, and for that we should be thankful.
The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office. His most recent book Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice explores the efforts to bring Holocaust perpetrators to trial over the past three decades.