Why Demjanjuk matters
Efraim Zuroff is watching the John Demjanjuk trial now under way in Munich, along with millions of others. But his perspective is different. As chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Zuroff has worked for decades to track down and bring to justice the remaining Nazi criminals. He has chronicled his efforts in "Operation Last Chance: One Man's Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice," published by Palgrave Macmillan in November. Here, Zuroff reflects on why it is important to maintain the pursuit, even -- as seen in the case of Demjanjuk -- the remaining Nazi criminals are extremely old.
GUEST BLOGGER: Efraim Zuroff
Hundreds of journalists were in the courtroom in Munich for the opening this month of the trial of 89-year-old John Demjanjuk, the retired U.S. auto worker who is charged as an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews for his alleged activities as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. Millions of others watched on TV or on their computers as Demjanjuk was wheeled into the courtroom on a hospital gurney.
I am watching, too, but I cannot claim to be a neutral observer in this case. As someone who has spent practically his entire professional life seeking to help bring Nazi war criminals to justice, I felt that I had a vested interest in the outcome of the proceedings. Three decades of experience had taught me that a conviction in a trial likely to get maximum media coverage like this one, is a boon for additional prosecutions while a failure to convict would have a negative impact on bringing Nazis to justice far beyond the Munich courtroom.
Yet to be perfectly honest, even I found myself initially wondering whether those pressing to bring Demjanjuk to justice, might not ultimately regret that Germany had extradited him. The sight of him on a hospital bed almost completely covered by a blanket and paying absolutely no attention to the proceedings, while trying to appear as ill as possible, were enough to induce what I often refer to as "Misplaced Sympathy Syndrome," in practically anyone.
A more sober appraisal of the scene, however, brought me back to the reasons I still believe that even more than six decades after the Holocaust, such prosecutions remain extremely significant and essential and why I have devoted my life to this endeavor. The arguments are not only judicial, but moral and educational as well.
The first point is that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of murderers. If a person committed murder in 1942 or 1943 and has hereto eluded justice, he or she is just as guilty today as on the day of the crime. Had the culprit been prosecuted many years ago, such a trial would not have aroused any skepticism.
The second point is that advanced age should not afford protection for killers. The practical implication of a chronological limit on prosecution is that if a person is lucky enough, smart enough, and/or rich enough to escape justice until they reach the age limit, they will never be held accountable for their crimes. Such a situation would obviously be a travesty of justice, which is why no country has ever limited prosecution solely based on age.
The third point is the obligation that society owes the victims of the Nazis and their collaborators. At a minimum, a serious effort should be made to identify and take legal action against the individuals who turned innocent men, women, and children into victims simply because they were unfairly branded "enemies of the Reich." That is an obligation we owe to every single Holocaust victim.
In that context, I want to add two additional arguments which are pertinent, especially in cases of individuals who were not officers. For the approximately 29,000 Dutch Jews murdered in Sobibor during the period that Demjanjuk served in the camp (March-September 1943), his rank was not the issue. He actively participated in their murder and without people like him, who volunteered for service in the SS and carried out the duties they were assigned, the Nazis could never have murdered as many Jews as they did. "Superior orders" has never, with one exception subsequently overturned, been accepted as a legitimate defense in such cases. International law has always insisted that each individual bear responsibility for his or her crimes regardless of rank.
In my thirty years of trying to help bring Nazi criminals to justice, I have never encountered a single case in which a Holocaust perpetrator ever expressed any remorse or regret. Given the plethora of information about Nazi crimes available at least during the past two decades, one might imagine that some of those we are trying to bring to justice might be having second thoughts about crimes they committed in their youth, but that has never been the case.
So when I see someone like Demjanjuk trying his best to appear as medically unfit as possible to elude prosecution, I think back to the Sobibor death camp. It was there -- when he was at the peak of his physical strength -- that he devoted all his energies to the mass murder of innocent Jews for whom he had no sympathy whatsoever. And then the validity and necessity of justice become as clear and strong as ever.
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