In what could be one of the final lawsuits against Nazi war criminals, the Munich district court today convicted John Demjanjuk for his part in the Nazi killing machinery.
As a prison guard at the camp Sobibor in Poland, Mr. Demjanjuk, now 91, had been a willing part in the mass murder of 27,900 Jews, said Judge Ralph Alt.
Even though he was sentenced to five years in prison, Judge Alt ruled that Demjanjuk should be freed because of his age and the two years he already spent in custody.
Efraim Zuroff, who directs the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which has documented Nazi atrocities and tracked down war criminals, says he was thrilled when he heard the verdict, but deeply disappointed when Demjanjuk was set free. “A terrible decision,” says Mr. Zuroff. “He belongs in prison!”
During World War II, the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was drafted into the Soviet Red Army but was later taken prisoner by the Germans, who in 1943 used him as an auxiliary guard – a travniki – according to the prosecution. He later emigrated to the United States, where he lived outside Cleveland and retired after a career as an auto worker.
Demjanjuk’s defense attorneys deny that he was ever at the Sobibor camp and say they’ll appeal today’s decision.
The court did not find any evidence that Demjanjuk played an active part in the killing of prisoners, but followed the argument of the prosecution that anyone who aided the Nazis at Sobibor was an accessory to mass murder.
This case is not the first time Demjanjuk has been on the dock for murder. Two decades ago, Israel sentenced him to death for having committed the most sadistic atrocities as notorious prison guard “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka camp. Israel’s Supreme Court overruled the verdict after new evidence showed he had actually not been at the camp.
Demjanjuk had followed the trial in silence, wearing sunglasses and watching mostly from a wheelchair, sometimes even lying down. He didn’t show any reaction when the sentence was read.
Charlotte Knobloch, former president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, sees the sentence as proof of the trustworthiness of Germany’s judicial system. “Munich has sent a clear message today,” she said. “The perpetrators of the Holocaust will have to face justice.”