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An important trial, but a questionable verdict

2011 May 13
by Paul Vallely

There has been something slightly surreal about the trial of 91-year-old John Demjanjuk, who was yesterday found guilty of being an accomplice to the murder of 28,060 Jews at a Nazi death camp during the Second World War. The apparently helpless nonagenarian spent most of the trial lying flat on his back, with his eyes closed and mouth agape, though many suspected him of malingering. A secretly recorded surveillance film had shown the Ukranian-born US car worker walking entirely unaided just before he was extradited to Germany for what will probably be turn out to be the country’s last big Nazi war crimes trial.

It was right that he should stand trial, so many years after the crime. No statute of limitations should apply to crimes against humanity. But there is enough about this case to leave the dispassionate observer with a slight unease.

It was Demjanjuk’s second trial. He was first charged with war crimes in 1977 and extradited to Israel almost a decade later to stand in a dock accused of being Ivan the Terrible, a notoriously sadistic guard at the death camp at Treblinka. Two years later he was found guilty and sentenced to hang. But then evidence was found that another man, Ivan Marchenko, was the one responsible. Demjanjuk was, five years later, freed and returned to the United States.

That trial and the one which ended yesterday shared two unsettling features.  Both turned on the question of identification and the reliability of eyewitnesses. At the heart of both cases was an SS identity card indicating Demjanjuk belonged to the Trawniki – an SS-trained section of non-German volunteers charged with supervising the murder of Jews. But the ID card has come from the archives of the KGB which was known for black propaganda exercises. The FBI has previously expressed doubts about the authenticity of the card. The defence argued that the card was a forgery. Seven German judges yesterday decided it was not.

In the first trial five Treblinka survivors categorically, but mistakenly, identified Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible. There were no living witnesses in the second trial thought the US judge who stripped Demjanjuk of his American citizenship in 2002 ruled that there was sufficient reliable evidence to show that he had been a concentration camp guard somewhere, if not at Treblinka.

Sobibor did not leave many witnesses.  It was one of three secret killing factories built by the Nazis in eastern Poland where, over just 18 months, a quarter of a million Jews were murdered in its gas chambers and their bodies incinerated. Demjanjuk was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of 28,060 of those people. Prosecutors claimed they had found lists of names of the people whom Demjanjuk personally led into the gas chambers. But no evidence was produced that he committed a specific crime beyond being complicit through being a guard in Sobibor from March to September 1943. Perhaps that was why he was sentenced to just five years in prison, though he has already served eight years in an Israeli jail.

The trial has achieved something important. A German court has been forced to hear the details of the machinery of industrial killing in the very city where the Nazi party was founded. The thousands murdered at Sobibor, which has not figured prominently in accounts of the Holocaust, have had their sufferings acknowledged publicly and prominently. Owning up to the sins of the past is part of the present generation’s duty to the generations of the future. But it would have been better if that could have been done without anxieties about the soundness of the Demjanjuk conviction.

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