Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

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.

By Jeffrey WhiteCorrespondent / May 12, 2009


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.

Skip to next paragraph

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.