With the pursuit of Demjanjuk, Germany seeks justice and a measure of redemption
The suspected Nazi death camp guard was flown to Munich Tuesday. His may be the country's last World War II war-crimes trial.
Berlin — John Demjanjuk, the former US resident accused of being a Nazi concentration camp guard during World War II, arrived in Germany Tuesday to stand trial on charges that he played a role in the murder of 29,000 Jews.
Mr. Demjanjuk's deportation closes a decades-long effort to bring him to justice, while the prospect of a Nazi-era war crimes trial here – perhaps the last Germany will ever conduct – seems likely to rekindle the kind of national soul-searching about a troubled past that never seems too far below the surface of everyday German life.
"There are probably many of the older generation that would love to say 'enough with this,' with going after Nazis," says Martin Gajewski, an administrator in Berlin who's been following the Demjanjuk case. "But it's impossible for us to stop prosecuting them, because that would be like laughing at the victims."
Demjanjuk, an 89-year-old retired autoworker who had been living in the suburbs of Cleveland, was taken into the custody of US immigration and Homeland Security authorities on Monday. He flew on a private jet to Munich, where German authorities met him and transferred him to a medical facility attached to the Stadelheim prison in the German state of Bavaria.
He is undergoing a range of medical examinations to determine whether he is healthy enough to stand trial. The German state prosecutor is expected to formally arrest Demjanjuk and serve him with a murder indictment soon.
Demjanjuk's family, which has maintained his innocence from the beginning, managed to stave off numerous deportation efforts recently on the grounds that he was too old and unhealthy to survive the trip to Germany. Demjanjuk is said to suffer from numerous illnesses.
Stephen Kramer, the general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in an interview that Demjanjuk's deportation was highly symbolic. "He really is one of the last links in a long chain in the Nazi machinery that killed Jews."
Demjanjuk's side of the story
Demjanjuk would deny that, however.
Born Ivan Demjanjuk in Ukraine, he moved to the US in 1952 and gained citizenship six years later. The story he told friends and family was that he fought in the war in the Soviet Army, was captured by the Germans, and was a prisoner of war.
But for nearly 30 years now, he has faced the accusation that he was not a prisoner during the war, but rather a Nazi guard at a death camp.
First, he was thought to be the guard known as "Ivan the Terrible" at the Treblinka extermination camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. In 1987, he was extradited to Israel, which at first convicted him and sentenced him to die. After seven years in custody, an appeals court there acquitted him.
His US citizenship was restored in 1998. But a year later, the Justice Department opened a new case against him. In 2002, a federal judge ruled that Demjanjuk had been a guard instead at Sobibor, in what is far eastern Poland today. He has been awaiting – and fighting – deportation since 2005. Last week, he failed to convince the Supreme Court to consider his appeal.
A Berlin court Monday also denied an appeal to stop the deportation.
The case against him
US and German authorities say they have evidence that tells an altogether different story about Demjanjuk – the most incriminating being a Schutzstaffel (SS) photo identification card they say belongs to him, proving he was a guard at Sobibor who personally walked thousands of people to their death in gas chambers.
Authorities also say they have written evidence that Demjanjuk received training at a special SS facility for Nazis at Trawniki, also in occupied-Poland, plus the testimony of former guards who remember him at Sobibor.
"You can be sure that authorities would only bring this case to court, especially against someone who is 89 years old, if they are really convinced that they can prove that he was in Sobibor," says Cornelius Nestler, a professor of law at the University of Cologne.
Demjanjuk's lawyers are now maintaining that even if their client was at Sobibor, he was there with other Ukrainians who were pressed unwillingly into service by the Nazis.
Professor Nestler is part of a team of lawyers who are involved in an aspect of the Demjanjuk prosecution: representing Sobibor survivors or the children of those who perished there.
Under the German legal system, they can stand as coplaintiffs in the trial, with essentially the same rights as the public prosecutor in charge of the case. They have the right to examine Demjanjuk, give statements, bring motions, and take evidence. Nestler says nearly 15 have come forward so far.
"This is really about justice, not revenge," Nestler says.
No statute of limitation for murder
Germany is perhaps unique in that its legal system does not provide a statute of limitation for murder, stemming from a ruling in the 1960s made explicitly to help German prosecutors bring Nazi war criminals to account.
But as Demjanjuk prepares for his day in court, this country's postwar record on prosecuting Nazis is likely to also be on trial.
Critics say that while memories are long here, and Germans have done much to own up to their country's past, legally speaking, Germany has not shown the same determination in prosecuting Nazi war criminals.
According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, the 90,000 indictments brought against accused Nazi criminals between 1949 and 1985 in Germany brought only 7,000 convictions. "Just because the people were not [Heinrich] Himmler doesn't mean they should not be brought to justice," said Efraim Zuroff, the center's chief Nazi hunter.
That is precisely what Mr. Gajewski, the Berlin administrator, spoke about in referring to the war generation here, which has long faced criticism for having remained silent in the years following the Nazi era.
"It was my generation that asked the questions," Gajewski says. "We asked our parents, what did you do?"
Asked about Demjanjuk, Gajewski says, "We don't know if it's his fault. But if he is guilty, then he should be punished."