Hunting Demjanjuk

The End of a Decades-Long Case and What It Means

Closure: After many decades, Ivan Demjanjuk, 91, was finally convicted and sentenced to a five-year prison term for his time as a guard at the Sobibor death camp.
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Closure: After many decades, Ivan Demjanjuk, 91, was finally convicted and sentenced to a five-year prison term for his time as a guard at the Sobibor death camp.

By Efraim Zuroff

Published May 17, 2011, issue of May 27, 2011.
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At long last, the seemingly endless saga of Ivan Demjanjuk appears to have finally come to an end. What began in the United States in the 1970s as an investigation of a suspected armed SS Ukrainian guard at the Sobibor death camp, concluded more than 35 years later in a Munich courtroom with a verdict confirming that initial allegation. This was a successful result for one of the most complicated and difficult cases of a Nazi war criminal. And rather than being the last of such trials, there is reason to believe that it might set a precedent for further prosecution of those remaining Holocaust perpetrators who have managed to evade justice.

After Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel in 1986, I sat through many of the sessions in the Jerusalem District Court and later in the Supreme Court. This was one of the many roller coaster moments in the history of this case, which has always provided plenty of intense drama — joy upon his initial conviction and death sentence, followed by deep disappointment and frustration when it became clear in the appeal process that Demjanjuk was probably only another terrible Ivan and not “Ivan the Terrible.”

After the Supreme Court determined that he was not the person who operated the gas chambers at Treblinka, Demjanjuk was convicted finally in 1993 only of “membership in a Nazi organization,” which was punishable by seven years imprisonment, which he had already served. I petitioned for the Simon Wiesenthal Center to have him tried again in Israel, this time for his “less terrible” role at Sobibor, but all petitions for a retrial were rejected.

The prospects of further prosecution seemed very unlikely back then, and once Demjanjuk’s US citizenship was restored, it seemed practically impossible. But the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations refused to give up and again sought his denaturalization and deportation, this time for his service in Sobibor and additional Nazi concentration camps. We would have never reached the final verdict, however, without what can only be regarded as a revolutionary change in German prosecution policy. This is what ultimately led to the unprecedented step by the German authorities to seek Demjanjuk’s extradition from the United States.

From 1949, when West Germany assumed full responsibility for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, until about three years ago, German prosecutors generally sought to bring to justice only officers and only those who were Germans, Austrians or Volksdeutsche, ethnic Germans living abroad. This policy intentionally ignored tens of thousands of Holocaust perpetrators who had actively participated in mass murder. In Germany’s defense, because of the great number of people who belonged in that category, it would have been impossible to prosecute all the Nazi war criminals still alive in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and thus priority had to be given to those with command responsibility. In recent years, though, that was no longer the case. We therefore tried to encourage a change in this policy, even giving Germany a failing grade in our 2007 Annual Report. But it was the Demjanjuk case and the energetic lobbying efforts of the OSI that ultimately convinced the Germans to prosecute Demjanjuk, who was neither an officer nor of German origin.

This decision was not the only revolutionary aspect of the case. Demjanjuk’s conviction marks the first time that a German court has found a suspected Holocaust perpetrator guilty without any evidence of a specific crime committed by the defendant, other than service in a death camp. As a Holocaust historian, I can easily justify such a decision. Imagine, though, what a profound impact such an exhibition of judicial will could have had on previous trials of Nazi war criminals and other cases that were never prosecuted if this standard of proof had been applied.

So now the question is: Will this verdict serve as a precedent that can pave the way for additional prosecutions? Only time will tell, but a day before the Demjanjuk verdict, we received a stark reminder of the limits of such judicial will. A Bavarian court refused to extradite to The Netherlands convicted SS executioner Klaas Faber, who took part in killing 22 innocent individuals in Holland. Faber escaped from a Dutch prison in 1952 and has been spared extradition ever since by the German citizenship he obtained for his service in the SS.

One can only hope that the Demjanjuk verdict will, rather than marking the end of such prosecutions, influence and encourage German prosecutors. In Faber’s case, as in a few others, there is not much time left if we want to see justice finally prevail.

Efraim Zuroff is the coordinator of Nazi war crimes research for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the center’s Israel office. He is the author of “Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice” (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2009).


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