Why Demjanjuk matters

Defendant John Demjanjuk lies on a stretcher on his way to the court room for his trial in Munich on Dec. 22. (AP Photo/Joerg Koch)

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.

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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.

By Steven E. Levingston |  December 22, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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I don't disagree with any of your points. My concern is that, after all this time, eyewitness identification might not be accurate. Demjanjuk is not the only one getting old. Is there one piece of concrete evidence that links John Demjanjuk, retired auto worker, with the Sobibor guard? I ask this in all ignorance, frankly -- I remember Demjanjuk's extradition hearings in the 80s, and as I recall, the only evidence was eyewitness testimonial.

Posted by: bravegirl01 | December 22, 2009 10:11 AM

Demjanjuk is a victim too. Both sides agree that Demjanjuk was a Soviet POW in German hands. Soviet POW's had an appalling death rate. Some of the earliest victims of Nazi gas chambers were Soviet POW's. The rest starved or were worked to death. It would seem if Demjanjuk if he is indeed "Ivan the Terrible" he joined the camp system as a means of survival. What makes him any different than a former member of the Judenrat or a Ghetto policeman?
It is also inaccurate to refer to Demjanjuk as a "Nazi". As a slav he was a subhuman and the Nazis at no-time would considered Demjanjuk an Aryan eligible for membership in the Nazi party.

Posted by: SSTK34 | December 22, 2009 12:33 PM

How about pursuit into the grave? Why not dig up their bodies and put them on trial? You'd accomplish just as much as you do now. And no court in the world should convict on eyewitness testimony 5 or 6 decades on; heck it's not reliable when it's fresh.

Posted by: ronjaboy | December 22, 2009 12:39 PM

Look, you want justice, and that's great. But the overzealous pursuit of justice already resulted in this guy being wrongly convicted once. It looks like it may happen again.

I'm really sorry that Hitler and Mengele aren't still alive so that you can kick them in the crotch until they're dead, but life is tough. Get over it.

Posted by: seraphina | December 22, 2009 12:45 PM

Bravegirl01 has a point.

Show me the DNA evidence that he was there.

Posted by: bs2004 | December 22, 2009 12:48 PM

Blah, blah, blah. We're being a little presumptious are we? The author asserts that Demjanyuk is guilty, and not only that, he's faking illness. Guilty until proven innocent I suppose...

... and not for the first time. Demjanyak sat in an Israili jail for six years until it was discovered that someone else was responsible for the crimes he was accused of. Oops. Evidentally, there was zero evidence in that case but that didn't stop them from imprisoning him. Oh yeah, speaking of apologies there were none there either.

Yeah, I understand the "always get your man" attitude, but there's always a some people are more equal than others attitude too. When some people get murdered, no one cares, the story disappears, others, like the Chandra Levy seem to get fresh articles in the WaPo every couple of months. The third point this is a special pleading for one situation in a world of limited resources, all other genocides are less important. Mr Zuroff will not spend too much time on those. After all its not his job.

Posted by: jhtlag1 | December 22, 2009 12:52 PM

John Demjanjuk has already spent years in an Israeli prison for crimes he did not commit. He was essentially framed by "Nazi hunters" like you, who prey on the anger of Jews and sympathies of Gentiles to keep your increasingly pointless careers going. You should be paying him compensation instead of persecuting him further.

Posted by: qaz1231 | December 22, 2009 1:07 PM

All tragedies end in farce. So is it with this trial. No justice is served no victims are helped.

Posted by: Fordson61 | December 22, 2009 1:08 PM

fr sstk34:

>...Demjanjuk is a victim too....

No, he is NOT a "victim". He's a murderer, and needs to be held accountable for what he did.

Posted by: Alex511 | December 22, 2009 3:05 PM

Demjanjuk has already gotten to live 64+ years since the War, most of them as a free person. That's more than his victims ever got.

Posted by: Nosy_Parker | December 22, 2009 3:22 PM

Demjanjuk matters because once again, the genocidal Israelis are being charged with war crimes, so it is tile to bring out the tattered "Poor Us Flag of the Holocaust" and wave it at everyone. Funny that now Israel and the Jews are running the largest concentration camp on Earth..the Gaza Strip. The camp victims are now running the camps. So yes, Demjanjuk matters !!! The message is that because Jews were persecuted 60 years ago, they have the right to murder as many goy as they want, run roughshod over international law, use illegal weapons on cities, and starve children. This is getting old...

Posted by: rabbitman | December 22, 2009 3:41 PM

As you might guess from my "handle", I'm Jewish & I feel very strongly about prosecuting war criminals of ALL derivations, but of course particularly Nazis.

I also feel strongly that age should NOT be a determiner in such prosecutions. Even justice deferred is better than none.

That said, this man has been acquitted twice - here & in Israel. How many time can we allow a person to be tried for the same crime(s)?

Posted by: Moishechazzer | December 22, 2009 4:56 PM

"He actively participated in their murder"


Do you know something that we dont?

What makes you believe he harmed anyone?

If you have evidence, dont keep it to yourself. You could have saved Israel millions because they made the effort to actually bring in survivors who knew ALL the guards at Sobibor - and they said Demjanjuk was never there.


I demand you withdraw your claim if you can not provide evidence NOW.

Posted by: BlackMinorcaPullets | December 22, 2009 5:13 PM

Your italicized lead-in refers to Mr. Demjanjuk as a "Nazi criminal," while Mr. Zuroff's last paragraph declares that he committed mass murder. I was under the impression that the court had not yet reached a verdict. Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? Does Mr. Zuroff know the word "alleged"? Or is this just a show trial, where guilt has been determined in advance?

Posted by: Andrij | December 22, 2009 5:46 PM

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