The recent death of John Demjanjuk, 91, in a nursing home in Germany, brings to a close one of the most extensive and most contested Nazi war crimes prosecutions in history, a process that began in the United States in the mid 1970s and was ongoing at the time of his death as Demjanjuk awaited the appeal of his conviction in Germany as an accessory to the more than 28,000 murders of Jewish men, women and children committed during the time he served as a camp guard at the Sobibor extermination camp.
In the immediate aftermath of his death there will be those, no doubt, who will argue that he was an innocent or at best served under duress, or at worst was a mere cog in the machine. There will be those who would repeat the canards expressed throughout his more than 30 years of prosecution in the United States, Israel and Germany, that the damning documents that prove his Nazi service were fakes and KGB forgeries, even though every court at every stage that has examined the documents has found them authentic and consistent with each other, proving that Demjanjuk was the bearer of Nazi identification card No. 1393, issued at the Trawniki training camp, that lists and correlates his Nazi service not only at Trawniki and Sobibor but also subsequently at the Flossenburg and Majdanek camps. There will be those who argue against the trying of old men, against the waste of resources, the time, the money, the prosecutorial effort.
There also will be many who, having no argument with Demjanjuk’s prosecution or conviction, will still, in the face of Demjanjuk’s long life and the thought of him spending his final days in a nursing home in Germany, ask: Was justice done?
As someone who spent many months in the Jerusalem courtroom attending the trial of Demjanjuk and followed closely every stage of his American and German proceedings, I would argue that, to borrow a biblical phrase, not only was justice done, it was seen to be done.
The notion that Demjanjuk, awaiting the appeal of his German conviction, living in a nursing home, was “free” is to ignore the reality of his existence — confined in a foreign country, cut off from family, friends and community, left to die with the mark of Cain upon him. The fact that almost every article concerning his death contained the words “convicted Nazi camp guard” is only one small measure of history’s judgment and of justice being done.
Demjanjuk’s prosecutions have added greatly to our knowledge of how the Final Solution, the unfathomable murder of millions, was carried out by the unexceptional — and not only by the Germans but also by their willing collaborators and henchmen. The death camps were commanded by Germans and staffed by their auxiliary guards, such as Demjanjuk, without whom the murders could not have been accomplished.
Despite the fact that Demjanjuk denied any and all involvement in the crimes of the Holocaust, he was demonstrated to be an exceptionally bad liar whose own accounts of his whereabouts were riddled with inconsistencies, impossibilities, untruths and evasions that bordered on admissions. The record by now is all too clear: Born in Soviet Ukraine, he was a Red Army soldier captured by the Germans who volunteered to serve the Nazis. Trained at Trawniki, and issued his Nazi ID there, he became an experienced camp guard serving at labor, concentration and extermination camps whose only function was the expeditious murder of innocent civilian Jewish men, women and children. He may have also served in the pro-Nazi Vlaslov Army both by his own admission and by reason of a Nazi blood group tattoo that he tried to erase. All of which, even any of which, had Demjanjuk revealed when he applied to or entered the United States would have been sufficient cause to deny him admission and bar him from citizenship, and which were cause for his denaturalization and deportation.
Those murdered at Sobibor and the other camps where Demjanjuk served cannot cry out for justice. There are no graves, other than the mass graves where they were killed, at which to mourn them. It is easy to imagine that those who committed the crimes thought no one would ever know who the perpetrators were or, worse, that no one would care. Perhaps they imagined that they could, like Demjanjuk, deny everything. Who would prosecute them? What could they prove? It is to the everlasting credit of the United States, Israel and Germany that over the last three decades they continued to prosecute the guilty, not only the planners, the officials or the commandants but also the guards and policemen; not only the desktop murderers but also those with blood on their hands.
The generation that saw the Nazi horrors firsthand will soon pass from this world. Demjanjuk’s trial may well be the last major Nazi war crimes trial. If so, then Demjanjuk’s epitaph is just: not that he died a free man but that he died, in the eyes of the world and for all history that follows, a convicted Nazi war camp guard.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears in The Journal regularly, and his blog can be found at jewishjournal.com/tommywood.