John Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker living in Cleveland, faces deportation to Germany Wednesday to answer to war crimes charges that as a guard at a World War II Nazi extermination camp he had a hand in the deaths of nearly 30,000 Jews and gypsies.
In this country of long memories and an ongoing determination to face up to the legacy of its Nazi past, even 60 years on, cases such as Demjanjuk's rarely raise questions here about whether too much time has elapsed to prosecute old crimes.
"If Mr. Demjanjuk is too ill to stand trial, that is one thing, and for others to decide," says Peter Graumann, the vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. "Apart from that, I think it's very important to try him as a signal and a sign of justice being done at last – that there is no time limit to justice."
The fate of Mr. Demjanjuk edged closer to a German trial Monday when US Immigration Judge Wayne Iskra reversed his own ruling from three days before that had stayed Demjanjuk's deportation on grounds of poor health.
Due to his illnesses, Demjanjuk's family maintains a forced trip to Germany and subsequent trial would amount to inhumane torture, something the Justice Department denies.
Demjanjuk, a native of Ukraine, moved to the US in 1952 and gained citizenship in 1958. He has maintained his innocence, and his family vowed to appeal his deportation on health and humanitarian grounds Tuesday.
German authorities say they have extensive evidence – the most damning being a Schutzstaffel (SS) identification card – that implicates him and proves he was a guard at the Sobibor death camp in southern Poland who personally walked thousands of people to their demise in gas chambers.
The Ludwigsburg Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in southern Germany built the case against Demjanjuk. A spokesman for its director, Kurt Schrimm, declined to comment on today's developments, saying the case had been handed over to prosecutors in Munich, where Demjanjuk would stand trial upon arriving in Germany.
In recent days, the German news media have focused on the idea that if Demjanjuk stood trial here, it likely would be the last such trial linked to the Nazi era. In all, some 6,500 Nazi war criminals have been brought to justice in Germany since the end of World War II, about 1,200 of whom were accused of murder.
The last former Nazi to stand trial in Germany was Josef Schwammberger, who was issued a life sentence in 1992 and died in prison in 2004. "The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of Nazi perpetrators," says Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi-hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem. "If we want to set a chronological limit on prosecution, then if [former Nazis] are smart enough or lucky enough to escape justice until that age, they get completely off."
"We believe that every single victim of the Nazis deserves to hold the people who turned them into victims accountable," Mr. Zuroff says.
As Demjanjuk awaits deportation, the US Justice Department's Office for Special Investigations has begun moves to expel a Pennsylvania man accused of hiding his Nazi past. Authorities say Anton Geiser, an 84-year-old who has lived in the US since 1954, was an SS guard at the Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald concentration camps and lied about this on his entry documents. Right now, it is unclear where the US wants to deport Mr. Geiser to.
Demjanjuk has faced allegations about his Nazi past for three decades. In 1987, he was extradited to Israel, where he was accused of being the Nazi guard known as "Ivan the Terrible" at the Treblinka extermination camp, also in what is today Poland. After seven years in Israeli custody, a 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 rather than Treblinka. He has been awaiting deportation since 2005, and last year failed to get the Supreme Court to consider his appeal.
Demjanjuk maintains that he was never a member of the Nazi party and that during the war he had fought with the Soviet Army, becoming a prisoner of war in Germany when he was captured in 1942.
"However the Germans proceed, we will be fighting for justice in this sad case," his son, John Demjanjuk Jr., told Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung recently. "There is no credible evidence that he engaged in murder or even thousands of murders. He has never harmed anyone, before, during or after the war."