Demjanjuk Trial Winds Down Families of Sobibór Victims Value Memory over Malice
As the trial of John Demjanjuk in Munich draws to a close, any doubts that the defendant was an accessory to the murders of 27,900 Jews seem to have been set aside. But most of the joint plaintiffs are not interested in revenge -- they only want to keep the memory of the Sobibór extermination camp alive.
When the trial of John Demjanjuk for being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews in the Sobibór extermination camp began in Munich on Nov. 30, 2009, the question of whether prosecutors would not be required to demonstrate the defendant's personal guilt to secure a conviction against him, as is usually the case, was joined by a number of other doubts as to the legitimacy of the case itself.
Can a formerly insignificant guard like Demjanjuk, who occupied a position at the lowest level of the Nazis' murderous hierarchy and whom the prosecution could not charge with a single concrete crime, be tried at all? A man who, as a prisoner-of-war of the Germans in 1942, could only choose between two evils: either starve to death, freeze to death or be consumed by typhus, like millions of other captured Red Army soldiers, or work for the enemy?
Can a fragile old man be hauled before a court more than 65 years later when, as the defense argues, so many Germans who conceived, organized and carried out the Holocaust in an unbelievably gruesome manner, got off lightly or even scot-free?
And even if the court were to issue a guilty verdict, who benefits from punishment today? Should it serve as a deterrent? Is the intention to rehabilitate an old man?
And is there even an adequate punishment for tens of thousands of counts of murder? The German Criminal Code defines a murderer as someone who kills a person for specific reason -- but not thousands upon thousands of people. Isn't it true that our criminal law is suitable for ordinary crimes but not for the systematic extermination of millions of people?
Dozing in Court
Ivan Mykolayevych Demjanjuk is now 91. He suffers from chronically low hemoglobin levels, and something as minor as a cold can be life-threatening for him. But he is not the half-dead figure he has appeared to be during the trial, which has lasted almost a year and a half, with some 90 days in court. He would be rolled into the courtroom and placed onto a hospital bed, where he would doze away, his eyes hidden behind a pair of black sunglasses. It was an image that eventually prompted onlookers to overlook his presence, with only the murmuring of the translator serving as a reminder that there was a man on the fringes of the trial who, as the defendant, ought to have been at its center.
It was not the ceiling lights that hurt his eyes, as he claimed, because they were switched off for his sake. It was apparently the sight of the men and women whose parents, sisters and brothers had been beaten and forced into the gas chambers by the "Trawnikis," as the mainly Ukrainian helpers in Sobibór were known. He refused to look at them.
In fact, these joint plaintiffs attracted much of the attention, as a result of their gratitude that this trial was finally focusing the public's awareness on the Sobibór camp. Very few of them wanted revenge and retribution. Many supported the prosecution's motion to impose a six-year prison sentence. For them, it was more important that memories would not fade away, and that no one would ever again refer to Sobibór as the "forgotten" extermination camp.
Fight for Survival
Demjanjuk was born on April 3, 1920 in a village in Ukraine, where he was supposedly forced to eat rats and food scraps during the famine under Stalin. As a young man, he was sent to the front and was eventually captured by the Germans. Again, sheer survival was his biggest concern. Because the Germans valued Ukrainians as being "useful," unlike other prisoners-of-war, the choice was easy.
Another argument against the legitimacy of the trial is the question of whether the defendant hadn't already atoned enough for his alleged crimes. He had been imprisoned in Israel for seven-and-a-half years, including five years on death row, after being tried and found guilty as "Ivan the Terrible," a notorious guard at the Treblinka concentration camp. He also spent 10 months in detention while awaiting extradition from the United States, and he has been in custody in Germany since May 12, 2009. All told, he has already been behind bars for 10 years.
It turned out that Demjanjuk was not actually Ivan the Terrible, the butcher of Treblinka who cut off women's breasts and men's ears. His bitterness partly stems from the fact that the Americans, apparently knowing that he was not Ivan the Terrible, nevertheless extradited him to Israel, where he could expect to receive the death penalty.
But even if he wasn't Ivan the Terrible, the label has stuck to him to this day, because it singles him out from the hordes of Trawnikis and puts a face on their atrocities.
Now, after a trial in Munich that has lasted one-and-a-half years, the questions of its legitimacy have been answered. Defense attorney Ulrich Busch is the only person who does not tire of continuing to contest these issues. No one is arguing that it was not reasonable for Demjanjuk to try to save his life by allowing himself to be recruited by the SS. But when it became clear to him that his work for the SS consisted of having people murdered, he should no longer have taken part. That, at least, is the view held by the prosecution and the joint plaintiffs.