John Demjanjuk is 89 years old and is quite ill. Born in Ukraine, he came to the U.S. in 1951 as a displaced person. He and his family settled and he went to work as a diesel mechanic at a Ford plant in Ohio. He became a U.S. citizen in 1958. Life seemed to go on pretty normal for the Demjanjuk family until evidence surfaced that he had been a Nazi SS guard at a death camp during WWII.
A strange saga began 32 years ago that sought to bring Demjanjuk to justice for war crimes. Demjanjuk says that he was never in the German SS. He says he was a Soviet soldier that was captured and spent most of the war in a German POW camp.
The courts disagreed with Demjanjuk. Four years after the original charges were filed the then 61-year-old auto worker had his U.S. citizenship stripped for lying on his citizenship application. Two years later, Israel requested his extradition. He was finally extradited to Israel three years later. His trial spanned a year and a half. Finally, he was convicted of being an evil Nazi death camp guard called “Ivan the Terrible” and was sentenced to hang.
During the appeals process information was discovered in records of the newly collapsed Soviet Union that proved the charges false. However, other records surfaced suggesting that Demjanjuk was a different Nazi death camp guard. Still, he was exonerated of the charges of which he had been convicted. After seven years in Israel, a 73-year-old Demjanjuk was returned to the U.S. It took five more years before his U.S. citizenship was restored.
A year after that, a new complaint was filed against the 79-year-old Demjanjuk based on the evidence referenced above. This began a whole new round of court actions that resulted in the revocation of his citizenship at age 84. Since that time, there have been a series of actions seeking to deport Demjanjuk to Germany for trial.
This week the sick 89-year-old Demjanjuk sat in a German court in a wheelchair breathing oxygen from a tank as charges against him were read. (See AP article.) Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center says that Demjanjuk’s trial will reinforce “the message that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the murderers.”
Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch has no sympathy for the aging Demjanjuk because he “knew no mercy for his victims.” Saying that his trial “is a race against time,” she apparently wants to hurry to rub him out before he dies of natural causes.
The evidence against Demjanjuk has not been made fully public. In 2004 the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals found that the current evidence against him is “clear, unequivocal, and convincing.” While that helps legally justify the current actions, let’s not forget that the previous evidence that Demjanjuk was “Ivan the Terrible” was likewise considered incontrovertible by courts in multiple nations for at least a decade and a half.
My Dad grew up in a small German resort town on the North Sea. He never saw anyone wearing a Star of David identifying them as being Jewish, as occurred in larger German cities. The Nazi government was fairly effective in controlling information, so news of the Holocaust only began reaching Dad’s remote neck of the woods as whispered rumors late in the war. The rumors were so horrific that they were simply not believable.
Even when evidence of the Holocaust began to become public, the concept that such dreadful events were possible was so far outside of people’s experience and thought patterns that people could not bring themselves to believe it. It required an overwhelming cascade of evidence before people would believe. And then it changed everything.
The truth, it turned out, was far more horrific than any of the bizarre whispered tales had been. Millions of human beings — men, women, and children — had been methodically annihilated in huge death factories for the crime of being among classes of people the regime disliked. The government had tried to erase an entire class of people from the face of the earth. Until that evidence became clear, the thought that human beings were capable of carrying out such atrocities was inconceivable to most people.
Dad explained to me that once the Holocaust became part of the public psyche, it engendered an entirely new level of loathing and anger. And that was among people that had not been targets of the regime’s hatred. Imagine what kind of sentiments it fostered among those who survived the terror and those that lost loved ones in this horrendous crime.
The best way to reduce the chance of another future Holocaust is to instill in the worldwide psyche a complete and total repudiation of the practice. Any sense of legitimacy of such atrocities must be stamped out. It is in this vein that nations have spent three decades and millions of dollars to bring this one accused Nazi death camp guard to justice.
I somewhat understand and have great sympathy for the idea that the Holocaust atrocities (and anything like them) need to be criminalized and broadly de-legitimized. But part of me wonders if there isn’t a point where it makes sense to cut bait. Does it really make sense to rush to get a noose around this old man’s frail neck before his body naturally expires? Are there no cases where mercy might be applied without granting legitimacy to the crimes alleged?