The best thing about last week’s conviction in Germany of Sobibor guard John Demjanjuk is that the case works from the bottom up. The low-level functionary was brought to justice.
The worst thing is that for every major war criminal such as Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goering or Adolf Eichmann, there were many multiple Demjanjuks. The nearly 200 high Nazi officials and others tried at Nuremberg — the most famous war crimes trials — were literally only the tip of the iceberg of perpetrators and collaborators. The pursuit of criminal justice in countries including West Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the United States comprises an uneven patchwork of efforts mirroring the inconsistency of the pursuit of property restitution.
The network of concentration, work and death camps ran alphabetically from Arbeitsdorf to Zuffenhause and geographically from the south of France to Estonia. This network operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week and required an overwhelming number of guards, supervisors, commandants and others. Thus, Demjanjuk’s conviction may be too little, too late. There should have been tens of thousands of such trials running continuously for the last 65 years.
Demjanjuk’s primary line of defense had been mistaken identity. It should have been selective prosecution.
Nonetheless, the conviction should be seen as better late than never.
Demjanjuk also claimed that he himself was a victim. I don’t doubt that. He found himself subjected to a procession of post-World War I atrocities: Soviet repression, a vast famine imposed by Stalin in the Ukraine and forced conscription into the Soviet army. Nazi occupation completed this tragic parade.
I also don’t doubt that his victimization created a context for his crimes. Just recently, the Rev. Patrick Desbois, who has made a career out of detailing the mass murders of Jews throughout the Ukraine, met with the staff at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. He talked about the unctuous moral relativism created by the Ukraine’s tragic history. His work suggests there is no immutable good in human nature; rather, as some snails change their bodies to fit different shells, man changes his moral shape to fit the confines around it. This is how neighbors came to not only betray neighbors, but to kill them. (And it is our newfound, deeper understanding of this shape-shifting that has kept some of us at the museum awake at night lately.)
Yet, not all citizens rose to the level of direct perpetrator. Demjanjuk elected to work with the SS. He was not tried and convicted for his sufferings as a victim of some of the worst events in history. He was tried and convicted for what he did after those experiences.
Demjanjuk’s conviction relied significantly on his identity card from the Trawniki SS training camp. It was there that Demjanjuk morphed from being a prisoner of war to being a full-fledged SS collaborator. In my first professional experience with the Holocaust, I worked on the Israeli Demjanjuk trial in 1987. Establishing the reliability of that document in that proceeding made up a significant part of the Israeli case. The courtroom work surrounding it remains one of my strongest memories of the trial and convinced me of the document’s veracity.
Recent revelations that the FBI questioned the document in its analysis of American evidence against Demjanjuk do not concern me. Law enforcement’s job is to question evidence and evaluate its potential effectiveness in a courtroom. The questioning by itself does not suggest the document is fake. The German court’s admission of the document, and the document’s ability to withstand defense challenges to its authenticity, are what matters.
I am also not concerned that Israeli jurisprudence ultimately overthrew Demjanjuk’s death sentence conviction. In fact, I am thrilled by it. The Israeli Supreme Court stood as the mirror image to the crimes of which Demjanjuk was accused. Ivan the Terrible, who Demjanjuk was convicted of being, was ruled by only one law, his sadistic will, and under that law he murdered and tortured thousands. In the country committed to the preservation of the Jewish people, rather than wrongly execute a single innocent man — even one suspected of single-handedly annihilating Jews — the Israeli legal system adhered strictly to the rule of law that is the cornerstone of justice.
I am thrilled, as well, by Germany’s commitment to trying Demjanjuk for different crimes, and the resulting conviction. The rule of law flourishes in the very same land where it was once perverted to serve as an instrument of mass murder. If man’s ability to be good can be so affected by external forces, war crimes prosecutions not only right the wrongs of a nightmarish era, they also signify an important protection against the forces that lead to the Holocaust.
Mark A. Rothman is the executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
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