| 17Apr2011 | Andrej Busch

Being John Demjajuk

Posted: 17 Apr 2011 09:43 AM PDT

Most people are afraid of getting old. They idealize the strength and agility of their past and try to relive some of the better moments of their youth. They strive to remember what it felt like to live without the constraints of jobs, money, and families. It happens around their 40th Birthday and is called a midlife crisis.

Now, imagine an entire-life crisis. A solitary state of life that forces you to relive not the freedoms, but the coercion and horror of your youth over and over again until you are 91 years old and in a German prison cell. A life filled with accusations, threats, and hatred. Why would you fear getting old in such a life?

A lot has been written about John Demjanjuk who after decades of criminal trials is possibly facing his last one in Munich, Germany. Israel, the country of victims of the Holocaust, had him on trial and sent him home acquitting him of any wrong-doing. But Germany, the country of the criminals that as a people invented the most heinous and perverted crimes known to man-kind, put him back on trial for accessory to murder on more than 27,000 counts.

The German public treats this case as the last big Nazi trial. The German press hasn’t worried too much about the facts, but tried to create a finale for a subject that everyone wishes to bury. All the world knows that Germany has done a lousy job in persecuting Nazi crimes after the war. Many top people responsible for organizing the industrialized and lean killing of millions went unpunished and were permitted to continue their lives as if nothing had happened. Demjanjuk is a gift for the new Germany, the post World Cup Germany where everyone is a friend, not a murderer. Demjanjuk offers the chance to demonstrate how serious Germany is about crimes against Humanity and how it wasn’t only Germans who were bad, but other nationalities as well. So, no more singular guilt and shame for us anymore. Germany, at last, has forgotten its past.

Why else would they set Demjanjuk on one level with Hitler, Eichmann, and Goebbels, even though the formal accusation is no less, but also no more than having been present at the death camp of Sobibor as a forced recruit of the Nazis and having -- in some unspecified way -- been part of the killing of thousands? Why would the German press be more preoccupied with the ongoing quarrels between the defense attorney and the judge, the sunglasses of the defendant, and other disproportionately exaggerated scandals in and around the court room, rather than with the arguments and facts of the case?

The facts are hard to establish and will cost a journalist more time to research than blindly following the general sentiment of pronouncing Demjanjuk guilty before a verdict has been reached. Writing about how absurd, preposterous, and biased the proceedings are, how judge and prosecutor cannot escape the public pressure of pressing on, and how obvious that this is a political trial held for political not judicial gain, will not get you published in any major paper. However, you don’t even need many facts to come to this conclusion. All you need, really, is common sense.

Was he there?

The first question to answer is whether John Demjanjuk actually was in Sobibor, Poland, at the death camp. Everyone agrees that he was a soldier in the Red Army and was eventually captured by German soldiers. What happened from then on is in dispute. A service card with his picture and name on it points to the fact that he must have been recruited by the Germans to become part of the German forces and then sent to Sobibor for duty. The service card, however, records an incorrect height and eye color. Its authenticity has been in dispute. The FBI and the Bundeskriminalamt were convinced it was a forgery in the 80’s , today Germans suddenly are sure it is authentic. What is puzzling is that the photograph appears to have been added later. The circles of the two stamps top right and bottom left that are printed on paper and photo, don’t align and suggest that the photo was moved. However, there is no angle at which the circles align, suggesting that the stamps on the photo were later added from other stamps. Just google the service card (Dienstausweis) and have a look yourself. It is known that the KGB forged evidence against indicted Soviets to punish their collaboration with the Nazi regime. So, whatever side you take, there is sufficient doubt that the service card is genuine. And without it, there is very little evidence that he ever was in Sobibor.

If he was there, did he do anything?

Even if you admit the service card as genuine, it only tells you that Demjanjuk was sent to Sobibor. It doesn’t specify the location as “Sobibor Concentration Camp” nor the type of activity he supposedly had to perform. Sobibor is the name of a town in Poland and was the location of several camps of the German Army, one of which was the concentration camp. Others were merely for storing supplies or weapons and his duty could have been to guard any one of several non-lethal locations. Even if he had been doing service at the concentration camp, the nature of this service could have been anything from actually participating in the organized killing to kitchen duty. There is no evidence and at least in all Western states it is a commonly shared principle that you are considered innocent until proven guilty. Without evidence, it is a witch hunt.

If he did anything, must he be punished?

Even if you negate the need for evidence and claim that just by being there (which cannot be established either), he must have helped the regime in some way. The prosecution seems to think that innocent presence could not have been possible, that everyone had to engage in illegal activity at some point. Even if you go as far as that, still how could you prosecute him? If you were in a German prison camp – facing the very real prospect of dying within half a year from starvation – and they offered you a way out, what would you do? All legal systems acknowledge the will of man to survive. If you were in distress at sea and you and another person were fighting for the last remaining space on a life raft, the legal system would consider it formally illegal, if you drowned the other one to survive yourself, but you wouldn’t be punished, you would be excused. So why would you punish a person who faced death in a German POW camp and later execution, if he left his post? It is known and proven that especially these so-called Trawniki – soldiers the Germans recruited from prisoners – were often shot if apprehended after deserting. Even, if you placed Demjanjuk at a death camp without evidence, why would you not grant him the right to invoke the defense of having acted under binding orders, arguing that any refusal would have meant certain death for himself. The same principle was applied to the German superiors of Trawniki soliders in charge of training them.

If he must be punished, will he serve time?

Even if you insist that Demjanjuk should be convicted of accessory to murder, it is highly probable that he will not serve any more time in prison. He has been on death row in Israel for many years and has been in pre-trial confinement for 2 years in Germany. Whatever the judge is going to hand down as a verdict, they have to take into account the time he has already been in prison (and his age and state of health of course). Chances are that whatever punishment he will receive, he has already served it. So, the outcome of this case is completely meaningless to the public. Millions are being spent on a trial that will make little if any difference. The life-long persecution, being sentenced to death just to be acquitted in time, being the only person to lose your citizenship twice in a lifetime, and having to end your life stateless either in a German prison or old age home, seems to be punishment enough for a crime that no one knows actually happened.

So why is he on trial?

This is the question the press should be asking. The agency in charge of persecuting Nazi crimes in Ludwigsburg investigated the case of Demjanjuk several times in the past. The leader of this agency, Mr. Schrimm investigated the case thoroughly in the past and had come to the conclusion in 2003 that there was no case and closed proceedings on Demjanjuk. Without any new fact, this suddenly changed in 2008 when an important anniversary of the agency was coming up with the German President visiting for a ceremony. People were talking about closing the agency and they knew they needed something spectacular that would justify the agency’s further existence. They needed something big and that is what they created. They are the real criminals in this absurd spectacle that is wasting resources and the life of an individual who has suffered enough in his life. The agency and their political agenda is the one which should be investigated.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure it isn’t easy being John Demjanjuk. Many were fortunate enough to leave behind the traumatic experiences of World War II, but whatever happened to him in his youth has been with him forever, an entire-life crisis. Whatever you believe, he was not the one who thought up and built a death machinery that killed millions of Jews and others. Whatever you believe, he didn’t declare war on other countries, he didn’t march in and set up Ghettos, he didn’t order the slaughter of thousands. In the worst case, he was a small wheel in a giant machinery. No German soldier has ever been convicted for being part of execution commandos or of burning everything in their way. If someone was held accountable for these acts at all, it was the superiors who gave the orders. How is that different in Demjanjuk’s case?

Looking at John Demjanjuk’s life, I think the real criminals got off pretty easy in comparison. Hitler shot himself, Goebbels poisoned himself, some were hung after the Nuremberg trials, and most got very short prison sentences, if at all. Demjanjuk, a man of whom it is completely unknown what he actually did, and in all likelihood did very little to nothing, has been persecuted for almost 40 years. Why he should bear the wrath of Humanity is inexplicable. And those who condemn him in public or press, those that ridicule and mock him because of the sunglasses and baseball cap, should do a little research on what their fathers and grandfathers did during the war. With 82 million Germans it is quite telling that the last big Nazi trial should be of an Ukrainian who is accused of having been a prison guard.