The Ghost of Bad Feilnbach: Bavarian Town Plays Awkward Host to Demjanjuk

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To the uninitiated, Bad Feilnbach seems like just another quaint spa town in southern Germany. But the town is also host to recently convicted Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk. Officials would prefer to ignore the 91-year-old's presence, but some in the town are unhappy.

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In the St. Lukas nursing home, there are some visitors who are asked to sign in at the reception desk. And then there are others who are simply asked to leave.

The home's director, Bernhard Arnold, provides little information to those asking about the facility's best known resident, convicted Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk. Yes, Arnold will say, Demjanjuk is indeed living here. Beyond that, though, he merely refers to a press release saying that Demjanjuk's admission to the facility was "guided solely by care-related considerations."

Arnold then shows the unwanted visitors to the door with a smile.

A fleet of walkers is parked on the ground floor of the three-story building blanketed in silence. The nursing home sits on the edge of the small village of Bad Feilnbach just south of Munich and it has been Demjanjuk's home since May 12. On that day, a court in Munich sentenced the 91-year-old to five years in prison for his work as a guard in the Nazi death camp Sobibor and his role in the deaths of 28,060 people.

Though no one in Bad Feilnbach sees or hears from Demjanjuk, he is still there. That alone is enough to give the town something to talk about. Indeed, Demjanjuk has become something like the ghost of Bad Feilnbach. Almost no one sees him in person, and he doesn't take part in daily life, but his presence is still felt.

Demjanjuk left the court in May a free man, the judge having ordered that he should not be forced to spend additional time behind bars. Furthermore, Demjanjuk is stateless and is unable to leave the country.

'I Didn't Ask for This Problem'

Both the German prosecutors and Demjanjuk's defense attorneys have challenged the verdict and it will likely be years before the appeals run their course. In the meantime, Demjanjuk will most likely remain in Bad Feilnbach.

The community neither asked for Demjanjuk, nor wanted him. After the trial, municipal authorities in Munich went looking for a place for him to live. The convict had to go somewhere.

Hans Hofer, Bad Feilnbach's 56-year-old mayor, sits in his corner office on the second floor of the town hall. His desk is stacked high with papers; a crucifix hangs on the wall. Hofer would prefer to talk about Bad Feilnbach's sound infrastructure, low unemployment and mild climate. The town's 30,000 fruit trees have led to comparisons with the Italian mountain resort town of Merano.

Indeed, Hofer is not thrilled about discussing Demjanjuk, and he notes that it is a very awkward subject. Sobibor and Feilnbach are separated by about 930 kilometers (578 miles), he points out, and the events for which Demjanjuk was sentenced took place 68 years ago. "I would never have dreamed that this would happen to me and in this way," he says. "I didn't ask for this problem." But, given his official position, he still has to deal with it.

A Town Dependant on Tourism

When it became known that Demjanjuk was staying in Bad Feilnbach, Hofer says that two people cancelled their trip to the town. A handful of people that had visited in years past wrote him that they would no longer come to Bad Feilnbach "because of Demjanjuk's presence." And now, even weeks after Demjanjuk's arrival, the reactions are still pouring in. "We have had considerably more than 30 e-mails in which guests have expressed concerns," Hofer says.

Hofer says that the town already has to make a lot of effort to attract vacationers and spa visitors. "We're fighting for each guest," he says. "We absolutely do not need negative reports." And he admits that he "can imagine" that having Demjanjuk here doesn't really add to the place's draw in the outside world.

In Bad Feilnbach, the sun is shining and the Wendelstein, an Alpine mountain some 1,883 meters (6,178 feet) tall, towers over the town. The tower of the Sacred Heart Church, with its characteristic onion-shaped dome, dominates the town center. Most of the houses have white walls on the bottom, wood paneling on top and rustic balcony rails.

Tourism is the town's most important industry and employs more than 1,000 residents. Given 330,000 overnight stays, the town can certainly survive a handfull of cancellations. But the town's image is at risk.

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