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Demjanjuk conviction hailed as long-awaited victory for justice

John Demjanjuk is wheeled into a Munich courtroom on Nov. 30, 2009 for the first day of his trial. The photo was taken by Sobibor death camp survivor Thomas Blatt. (Thomas Blatt)

BERLIN (JTA) — The guilty verdict pronounced May 12 against John Demjanjuk in a Munich courtroom was a long time coming.

Following a trial that lasted a year and a half — capping more than three decades of legal drama — the 91-year-old former Ohio autoworker is now officially recognized as a war criminal. He was found by the court to have been complicit in at least 27,900 murders at the Sobibor death camp, one of the most horrendous killing grounds in the Nazi genocide against the Jews.

The case drew the attention not only of Germans but of people around the world to events of 68 years ago. Family members of Sobibor victims, and two survivors of the camp — including Thomas Blatt, one of the rare escapees — provided riveting and emotional testimony about the suffering they had seen, as well as their lifelong anguish.

All the while Demjanjuk lay, impassively, in a hospital bed that had been brought into the courtroom, wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses.

He was sentenced to five years in prison but was released pending an appeal. In the interim, prison authorities have taken him to a nursing home.

Some decried Demjanjuk’s immediate release.

“It is a slap in the face of any survivor and the relatives of the victims,” Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told JTA.

Kramer went on to say, however, that the fact that he “was tried and judged and for the last days of his life is confirmed as a perpetrator” is the most important point.

“This court ruling now is a very important step in the direction of justice after more than 65 years of injustice,” he said.

The decision sent the message that “no matter how long it takes, mass murderers are accountable to justice,” said Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office.

Cornelius Nestler, the attorney for 12 Dutch plaintiffs in the case, called the conviction “a milestone in the history of prosecution of Nazi criminals.”

“It serves notice on all human rights violators that the passage of time will neither erase the world’s memory of their terrible crimes nor end its commitment to holding them to account.”

Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said “the conviction sets the precedent under which people who served where horrible crimes were committed can be prosecuted.”

But it is premature to call this the “last big Nazi trial,” as so many are doing, he added in a telephone interview from Jerusalem with JTA.

“People have been saying that for the last 24 years,” he said. “They said that about the [1992] trial of Josef Schwammberger, the first case in unified Germany … and there have been over 100 trials since then.”

The wait for justice in Demjanjuk’s case has been far longer than the duration of the trial.

Born in Ukraine, Demjanjuk immigrated to the United States after World War II. Hiding his Nazi past, he lived in suburban Cleveland starting in 1952. U.S. authorities uncovered his Nazi past in the 1970s.

Decades of legal drama ensued, including the well-publicized trial in Israel in which he was convicted in 1988 of membership in a Nazi organization and of being “Ivan the Terrible,” a notoriously brutal Treblinka guard. But the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the verdict in 1993 over questions about the evidence.

“There is no question there was a case of mistaken identity, so it was very good that he was not hung as ‘Ivan the Terrible,’ ” Zuroff said. “But he should [also] have been tried as another terrible Ivan — from Sobibor.”

Sobibor was constructed in German-occupied Poland in 1942. By the time the camp’s operation came to a halt in November 1943, at least 167,000 Jews had been gassed with carbon monoxide, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Demjanjuk, a Soviet POW in German hands in 1942, was trained as an SS guard in the Nazi Trawniki forced labor camp in Poland. In 1943 he was sent to work at Sobibor, where he assisted in the murder of Jews, a knowing, willing accomplice in the “machinery of extermination,” Judge Ralf Alt said in his statement explaining the conviction.

The verdict came after 93 court days, elongated by monologues by Demjanjuk’s chief attorney, Ulrich Busch, who claimed his client was just as much a victim of Germany as any Jew. Busch insisted that Demjanjuk was a scapegoat who was used by German justice to cleanse its own conscience for its failure to prosecute German war criminals.

Zuroff said the fact that a Ukraine-born Nazi war criminal can be tried in Germany is something to celebrate.

“The German prosecutors changed their policy approximately three years ago, and we encouraged them to do so,” he said, noting that previously they would only prosecute individuals of German origin, with a few exceptions.

“This trial is the product of a different approach that is much more inclusive. That is the good news,” Zuroff said, adding later, “But if this had been instituted in the 1950s, the numbers of those convicted would have been higher and the punishment meted out much stronger.”

Bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, however, remains a challenge.

On May 11, a German court decided not to extradite another accused war criminal to Holland. A court spokesperson said that Klaas Carel Faber, 88, who was convicted more than 60 years ago by a Dutch court of complicity in 22 wartime murders, would not be extradited because Faber’s consent as a German citizen was required and he refused, according to The Associated Press.

“This decision is absolutely outrageous,” Zuroff said. “It makes my blood boil.”

As for Demjanjuk, his five-year sentence likely will be reduced by the two years he has spent in jail during the trial. And his health may ultimately preclude further incarceration, if any appeals are lost, many have speculated.

But the question of “how long he is going to serve is secondary,” said Kramer. The conviction “is a very important step, but we have to admit it is not the last step.”

Nestler said his clients respected the court’s decision to release Demjanjuk pending his appeal.

“Under the rule of law,” the attorney said, “the court applied the presumption of innocence to Demjanjuk in the same way as it would to any other similarly sentenced defendant in Germany.”