John Demjanjuk, a 91-year-old retired autoworker, was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for aiding the Nazis in the murder of at least 28,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp during World War II. He was released pending an appeal.
The Munich Regional Court found Demjanjuk guilty today after an almost 18-month trial. The former U.S. citizen was deported to Germany in 2009 and accused of being a guard who helped herd Jews to the gas chambers at the camp in German-occupied Poland during 1943. Demjanjuk has denied the claims and his lawyers said after the verdict that they will appeal.
Today’s ruling closes what may be Germany’s last major Holocaust trial. The Nazis killed an estimated 6 million Jews in death camps throughout Europe during the war. The nation lifted its statute of limitation for murder in 1979, to allow prosecution of Nazi criminals to continue.
The judges are convinced Demjanjuk was a Russian prisoner of war in 1942 and was trained as a guard at a camp in Trawniki, Poland, Ralph Alt, the presiding judge, said when delivering the court’s reasoning. Demjanjuk was transferred to Sobibor in 1943 where he helped kill Jews as one of the so-called “Trawniki men,” as they were known, according to the judge.
“Every Trawniki man knew that he was part of a well and smoothly operating apparatus that had no other goal than systematically murdering Jews,” Alt said. “They all knew about the barbaric treatment of Jews. And the accused was part of that extermination machinery.”
The court ordered Demjanjuk released from detention, saying there is no reason to keep him until his prison term can begin. Demjanjuk was held from May 2009 until today to ensure he would attend the trial and, since he has no citizenship, there is no risk he will now flee, Alt said. Keeping him confined would be disproportionate, he said. The sentence can only begin once any appeal in the case is rejected.
“It doesn’t seem likely that Demjanjuk will actually serve any more time in the end,” Alt told reporters after the hearing. “The appeal will take at least a year and at that time his health may not allow putting him in prison.”
Demjanjuk’s release isn’t right, said Efraim Zuroff, Israel Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “We don’t think that is appropriate given the severity of his crimes and is frankly, an insult to his victims,” he said.
Prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz said he may appeal the decision to release Demjanjuk from detention. Prosecutors had sought a six-year sentence rather than the maximum 15 years.
ID Card, Memo
The court followed the prosecution’s argument that various documents, including an ID card, staff lists and a memo about a disciplinary penalty dating from January 1943, showed that Demjanjuk served as a Trawniki man and was at Sobibor. It’s unlikely all of the documents were forged, Alt said.
Demjanjuk’s conviction shows the Holocaust couldn’t have taken place without participation from Europeans on many levels who had criminal roles, Avner Shalev, chairman of Holocaust remembrance authority Yad Vashem, said in an e-mailed statement.
“While no trial can bring back those that were murdered, holding those responsible to justice has an important moral and educational role,” Shalev said.
Demjanjuk could have fled Sobibor and thus avoided taking part in the crimes, Alt said, citing other Trawniki men who fled. While such a move was very risky, Demjanjuk was obliged to take that risk, given the gravity of the atrocities, Alt said.
“Of course we will appeal the verdict,” defense attorney Ulrich Busch said. “This court has not shown one inch of evidence that would prove the personal guilt of my client.”
Demjanjuk, a native of Ukraine, later lived near Cleveland until he was stripped of U.S. citizenship and extradited to Israel in 1986. He was convicted and sentenced to death there on charges he was “Ivan the Terrible,” the guard who tortured Jews while herding them into the Treblinka concentration camp gas chambers. Israel’s top court overturned the sentence in 1993, saying there was reasonable doubt he served at Treblinka.
Demjanjuk returned to the U.S., regaining his citizenship. In 2002, it was revoked again over his alleged role at Sobibor.
When determining his sentence, the Munich court took into account the length of time since the crime took place and the jail time Demjanjuk already served in Israel. The fact that he may not return to his family because he lost his U.S. citizenship was also taken into account, Alt said.
“My father has suffered as a result of German brutality for nearly 70 years,” Demjanjuk’s son John said in an e-mailed statement. “The Germans arrogantly lay blame on a Ukrainian prisoner of war in an attempt to atone,” for their own crimes.
The trial began in November 2009 and has attracted worldwide media attention. Hearings were limited to two sessions of 90 minutes a day because Demjanjuk suffers from an incurable bone-marrow disease and back pain.
He followed the hearings on a hospital bed, usually wearing a blue baseball cap and sunglasses. When delivering the verdict, the judges made him face them sitting in a wheel chair.