More than 30 years after he was stripped of his United States citizenship and first charged with Nazi war crimes, John Demjanjuk died in his sleep last weekend in a nursing home in Germany at the age of 91, stateless. His legacy remains in limbo because his conviction last year for serving as a guard at the Nazi death camp of Sobibor, in Poland, was being appealed.
Over the years, and in trials in Israel and Germany, Demjanjuk’s case underscored the difficulty of reaching a clear-cut ruling on events that happened in traumatic war times decades earlier, based on the testimony and memory of victims ravaged by age.
Demjanjuk, who came to the U.S. after World War II and was an autoworker in Cleveland, maintained that he was the victim of mistaken identity. Others insisted he was a guard who collaborated in the deaths of nearly 28,000 people at Sobibor. Stripped of his citizenship here, he was deported to Israel where in 1988 he was convicted of being the infamous and sadistic “Ivan the Terrible,” who murdered thousands. But the Israeli Supreme Court ruled five years later that he was not Ivan the Terrible, and he was released.
He resettled in the U.S., and became a citizen again. But new charges were brought, and he was deported to Germany in 2009. He was found guilty two years later in a Munich courtroom.
Demjanjuk’s son, John Jr., described his father this week as “both a victim and a survivor of Soviet and German brutality from childhood ‘til death.”
But Efraim Zuroff, who heads the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, said Demjanjuk “died guilty of his service in the Sobibor death camp, and that is how he should be remembered — not as a person falsely accused but as an individual who volunteered to serve in the SS, and who at the height of his physical powers spent months helping to mass murder innocent Jews deported to that camp.”
Some believe the Munich trial may be the last of the major war crimes in Germany, which began in Nuremberg in 1945.
The words of Justice Meir Shamgar of the Israeli Supreme Court, on overturning Demjanjuk’s conviction in 2003, are fitting at this time. “This was the proper course for judges who cannot examine the heart and the mind, but have only what their eyes see and read,” he wrote. “The matter is closed — but not complete. The complete truth is not the prerogative of the human judge.”