Demjanjuk, Guilty

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It is unlikely that the conviction by a court in Germany of John Demjanjuk on what the Associated Press called “thousands of counts of acting as an accessory to murder at a Nazi death camp” will end the controversy that has surrounded this saga. Just this week, according to the AP, a United States district court at Ohio has appointed a public defender to represent the now-convicted war criminal in wrangling over whether a key piece of evidence — an identity card that would put him as a guard at Sobibor — was forged by the Soviet Union’s KGB. It is a time to remember that the courts in three countries looked at his saga and concluded that he was, in fact, at what, in Sobibor, was one of the worst death camps in an archipelago of evil.

That it was a court at Germany that finally brought in the guilty verdict in respect of Demjanjuk is an ironical coda. Demjanjuk had, after all, once been tried by the Jewish state. Then it was mainly on charges of being Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka. He was eventually acquitted by Israel’s supreme court, which concluded there was doubt that he was the terrible guard at Treblinka. The thing to remember is that at the time the court concluded that there was no doubt that he had been a guard at Sobibor. Then followed one of the most shameful decisions in the history of the Jewish state. Instead of holding Demjanjuk to be dealt with for the crimes the Supreme Court had no doubt he’d committed at Sobibor, the justices in Israel sent him back to America, where the extradition process began all over again.

At the time, Israel’s decision was reviewed journalistically by one of the most eminent of America’s appeals judges, Alex Kozinski, in a long dispatch in the New Republic. Judge Kozinski reckoned that even on the Treblinka charges an American court would not have been so friendly to Demjanjuk as was the court in Israel, where there is a tradition dating from the Sanhedrin that requires doubts to be interpreted in a way most favorable to the defense. He called the decision not to hold Demjanuk for retrial on the Sobibor evidence “[m]ore puzzling.” The Jewish Forward characterized Demjanjuk as a “clinical psychopath” who “showed less remorse than Jeffrey Dahmer.”

What accounts for the long apologia for Demjanjuk is beyond us. It began during what the Forward called “the years when the world is moving the Holocaust into museums.” At one point, when the appeal was in process in respect of Treblinka, the New York Times said he should not be executed, even if Israel’s supreme court had confirmed his guilt. Some suggested that the fairness with which Israel treated Demjanjuk would win admiration in the world and even some sort of political reprieve for Israel. In the event, it gained Israel nothing save for the shame of having left to others the final judgment of a mass murderer of Jews. It is a credit to prosecutors in both America and Germany that Demjanjuk was finally put into the dock for Sobibor, though even if his conviction is upheld he is unlikely to serve in prison more than a few years, if any, of a life that has gone on far longer than he deserved.


An earlier version of this editorial was corrected to specify the number of countries in which courts concluded that Demjanjuk had been at Sobibor.

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