The newspaper headline reads, “Nazi dies, avoiding jail time.” By any measure, John Demjanjuk was not a Nazi.
By his worst accusers he was a prisoner of war forced to work in a Nazi concentration camp. The article concludes: “Demjanjuk was the first man in Germany to be convicted for serving as a guard at a death camp – but without evidence of being involved in any specific murders.” How consistent! Over 36 years there was never any evidence.
Following his May 11 German conviction and sentence, the German government placed him in a nursing home. The court lifted the warrant of arrest stating that further incarceration would be unlawful pending the appeal and that John would not be a flight risk because of age, illness and the lack of a passport. They were simply waiting for him to die. In any event, under German law, a defendant is not considered convicted until all avenues of appeal have been exhausted. Demjanjuk died before his appeal was heard.
Yet another example of the facts not supporting the headlines!
But then this was the nature of Demjanjuk’s 36-year ordeal. The facts never did fit the accusations either. Demjanjuk was an enigma for his accusers. The accusations simply did not stick despite fraud, perjury, cover-up and incessant pressure.
Over the summer, my son who was entering high school was assigned to read “Night” by Eliezer Wiesel, an overwhelmingly moving memoir of Wiesel, a Jewish inmate at the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp. Wiesel was brought to Auschwitz from Romania. He wrote of unspeakable horrors including one where a Jewish acquaintance who was deemed fit for work, was forced to work in the crematorium and pushed his own father into the oven.
Wiesel suffered at German concentration camps from May 1944 until January 1945 at Auschwitz and then at another camp until early April 1945 when the Americans liberated him, a total of some 11 months.
I knew about the notorious Auschwitz camp from my father who was a Ukrainian prisoner there from December 1941 until January 1945. My father suffered at German concentration camps for more than three years.
Demjanjuk was a Red Army soldier, essentially Stalin’s fodder at the battlefront, considered by his commander-in-chief less important than munitions. He was captured and endured life as a German prisoner of war.
The end of the war brought little respite since being from the USSR, John had to evade repatriation to the USSR, a nefarious scheme of the Yalta conference where the Allies became complicit in Stalin’s crimes.
Finally, he managed to emigrate to America and lived there generally peacefully until that peace was disturbed in 1976. What followed was 36 years of persecution by new tormentors, including Jews and Americans, and old ones, Russians and Germans.
I knew Demjanjuk and his family. I met him several times. He always impressed me as being warm, good-natured and of remarkable hopefulness. I met him last in the Munich prison in November 2009 on the eve of his trial.
Frankly, neither he, nor his son, nor his German attorney nor I fully understood the charges against him. I suspect that the entire legal world marveled when the verdict came down against him. Similar charges had not been leveled against any human being.
In fact, ethnic German had been amnestied from similar prosecution by the German government in the 1960s. Here was a case that flew in the face of basic tenets of jurisprudence – selective prosecution, unequal treatment before the law, etc.
I am not suggesting that John Demjanjuk was a saint, after all he was a human being and, I am sure had faults.
I do consider him a martyr. He was a victim of German cruelty, Russian perjury, American irresponsibility at the very least and possibly criminality, and the immorality of the Jewish-Holocaust industry. Certainly he has gone to a better place where the judge is not beholden to anyone, where therefore justice is even-handed, and Demjanjuk should be rewarded for his egregious suffering.
I am proud to have known him.