The trial of John Ivan Demjanjuk, which opens next week in Munich, is likely the last major Nazi case in a series that began in Nuremberg in 1945. At that time, 24 top Nazis were tried before an international tribunal. Demjanjuk will appear before an ordinary German court.
By Sebastiaan Gottlieb
Ukraine-born Demjanjuk is alleged to have been a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland in 1943. He denies this, saying he was a German prisoner throughout the war.
In total over 170,000 Jews were murdered in Sobibor but Demjanjuk is only charged with complicity in the murder of 27,900 Dutch Jews who perished at the camp.
Dutch historian Johannes Houwink ten Cate explains: “The German prosecutors went for facts they could be certain of. They used the transportation list of the Durchgangslager Westerbork in the Netherlands. It is known exactly how many people were transported from there to Sobibor, by name and birthplace. Of course other Jews - coming from Eastern Europe - were killed in Sobibor as well, but there are no lists of them.”
The prosecution says Demjanjuk was a Soviet prisoner of war and became a guard at the Nazi camp in exchange for better living conditions, including a salary, food and vodka.
Ignat Daniltsjenko also worked at Sobibor and in 1985, he recognised a photo of Demjanjuk. His testimony is important evidence but his death several years ago raises questions about whether or not it can be used in the upcoming trial. In fact, all 23 prosecution witnesses are now dead.
Defence lawyer Guenther Maull said that he will argue that witness statements may have been made under pressure from Soviet interrogators when they were first taken 30 years ago. “Whether the statements have any value as evidence is questionable,” he added.
In 1952 Demjanjuk became a United States citizen. He moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and lived there with his wife, undisturbed by his past for more than 20 years.
That changed when reports from Russia alleged that Demjanjuk had worked at Treblinka and Sobibor, leading the US Justice Department to revoke his citizenship in 1981.
He was extradited to Israel and in 1986 stood trial in Jerusalem on suspicion of being the infamous Treblinka guard “Ivan the Terrible”. Demjanjuk was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging but was acquitted on appeal in 1993 after judges ruled that the evidence didn’t conclusively place him at Treblinka.
In 2004 new evidence emerged suggesting he had been a guard at Sobibor. Later that year, Germany requested his extradition and in May 2009 he was flown to Munich and arrested.
Jules Schelvis is a survivor of Sobibor and directs the Sobibor Foundation in the Netherlands.
“When I think of Sobibor, I think of […] the ones who were condemned to death without knowing it. My family, my wife who was murdered in the gas chamber. Even though he is now 89-years-old, Demjanjuk should be punished. The world has to know that he helped in killing these people.”