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Jewish Journal

German Court Convicts Demjanjuk

Mark Rothman, Executive Director, Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

May 12, 2011 | 1:22 pm

John Demjanjuk, circa 1943, has been convicted of being an accessory to the murder of 29,700 Jews at the Sobibor death camp in Poland. (El1604 / Wikimedia Commons)

The best thing about the Demjanjuk conviction (read the L.A. Times Article) is that the case works from the bottom up. The low level functionary - Demjanjuk was only a guard at Sobibor—is brought to justice.

The worst thing is that for every Himmler or Eichman, there were many multiple Demjanjuks. Thus this conviction is too little, too late. There should have been hundreds, if not thousands, of such trials running continuously for the last 65 years.

Demjanjuk’s defense has been mistaken identity. It should have been selective prosecution.

Demjanuk also claims he himself was a victim of the war. I don’t doubt that. Just recently, Father 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. In his discussion with us, he talked about the unctuous moral relativism that existed under the Nazi occupation. It is this relativism that allowed neighbors to not only betray neighbors, but to kill them. (And it is our deeper understanding of this relativism that has kept some of us up at night lately.)

Yet not all citizens rose to the level of direct perpetrator within the atmosphere of moral pollution and victimization imposed first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis. Demjanjuk, however, as was shown in Germany, elected to join the SS. He was not tried and convicted for his suffering during the Soviet-imposed famine that effectuated mass murder amongst the Ukrainians, or for his participation in the Soviet Army or for the inhumanities he experienced as a Soviet POW. He was tried and convicted for what he did after those experiences.

The L.A. Times article discusses the critical role the Trawnicki identity card played in convicting Demjanjuk. The year I lived in Jerusalem, I worked on the Demjanjuk trial conducted there. I became familiar with some of the testimony establishing the veracity of that document. I am therefore not troubled by the FBI’s questioning of that document, an internal FBI discussion that has recently been revealed. 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 challenges to its authenticity so that it could help support a conviction, is what matters.

I am also not concerned that Israeli jurisprudence ultimately overthrew Demjanjuk’s death sentence conviction. In fact, I am thrilled by it. Just as I am thrilled by Germany’s commitment to trying Demjanjuk for different crimes. It shows the rule of law survives and flourishes. And the rule of law is one of the most important protections we have against the moral pollution that lead to the Holocaust.

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