Trial of retired Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk breaks new legal ground in Germany

By David Rising, AP
Saturday, November 28, 2009

German trial is new twist in Demjanjuk saga

BERLIN — John Demjanjuk once was the focus of the world’s attention for the bloodcurdling crimes he stood accused of. Today, he’s attracting notice for being the lowest-ranking person to go on trial for Nazi crimes in World War II.

The latest chapter in a 32-year legal saga brings the retired Ohio autoworker to a court in Munich in a case opening Monday that breaks new ground in Germany’s pursuit of alleged Holocaust perpetrators.

If successful, it could significantly lower the bar for who is considered important enough to go to jail for being part of the Nazi apparatus.

In the 1980s, Demjanjuk stood trial in Israel accused of being the notoriously brutal guard “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka extermination camp. He was convicted, sentenced to death — then freed when an Israeli court overturned the ruling saying the evidence showed he was the victim of mistaken identity.

Now, at age 89, he is accused of serving as a low-ranking guard at the Sobibor death camp, charged with being an accessory to the murders of 27,900 people during the time he is alleged to have been there.

Demjanjuk maintains he was a victim of the Nazis — first wounded as a Soviet soldier fighting German forces, then captured and held as a prisoner of war under brutal conditions.

German prosecutors paint a different picture. After Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was in German captivity, they maintain, he volunteered to serve with the fanatical German SS and was posted to Sobibor in Nazi-occupied Poland.

It is the first time prosecutors have tried someone so allegedly low-ranking without proof of a specific offense. If Demjanjuk is convicted, other low-ranking suspects could face prosecution.

“This definitely marks a change in the decades-old policies of the German judiciary — a positive change,” said Efraim Zuroff, the top Nazi-hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Immediately after the war, top Nazis such as Hermann Goering were convicted at war-crimes trials run by the Allied powers. Investigations of the lower ranks eventually fell to German courts.

Many of those trials ended with short sentences, or acquittal, of suspects in greater positions of responsibility than Demjanjuk allegedly had. Demjanjuk is accused of having served as a “Wachmann,” a guard, the lowest rank of the “Hilfswillige” volunteers who were subordinate to German SS men.

For example, Karl Streibel — the commandant of the SS Trawniki training camp where Demjanjuk allegedly was trained — was tried in Hamburg but acquitted in 1976 after the judges ruled it hadn’t been proven that he knew what the guards being trained would be used for.

But today’s judges grew up in the 19550s and 1960s and recently have approached war crimes cases differently from their predecessors.

In August, the same court that will hear Demjanjuk’s case convicted Josef Scheungraber, a former German officer, of murder for the massacre of 10 civilians in Italy in 1944 even though no witness saw him give the order.

There are no direct living witnesses in Demjanjuk’s case either — but prosecutors argue that if he was a guard at the death camp, that necessarily means he was involved in the death machinery.

“In the early 1950s there were certainly some mistakes made, and sometimes there may have been an agenda behind it,” said Kurt Schrimm, head of the special German prosecutors’ office responsible for investigating Nazi-era crimes.

“One must remember, however, that our office has embarked since its founding in 1958 into completely uncharted territory,” he added. “It is unique that a people pursues their own crimes over decades, and we are always learning more.”

Demjanjuk’s family argues that there is pressure from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the U.S. Justice Department and others to try him.

“I think they’re going to push forward to have the trial no matter what, to have the media event and make it seem like Germany is doing what it can to hunt down and prosecute so-called Nazi war criminals,” John Demjanjuk Jr. told The Associated Press in a telephone interview, adding that his father suffers from a bone marrow disease and could only have months to live.

Schrimm said it was not until 2008, when his prosecutors’ office found lists of Jews transported to Sobibor during the time Demjanjuk was allegedly there, that there was enough evidence to pursue a case against him in Germany. Now, he said, there is an obligation to proceed with the trial.

“It is naturally difficult to deal with men who are soon in their 90th year,” Schrimm said. “But there are no doubts: The lawmakers decided in 1979 to remove the statute of limitations for murder, and therefore I see no reason to treat this case any differently.”

Proving the case is another matter.

Demjanjuk maintains he was never at the camp and questions the authenticity of one of the prosecution’s main pieces of evidence — an SS identity card that they say features a photo of a young, round-faced Demjanjuk and that says he worked at Sobibor.

He claims to be a victim of mistaken identity — a Red Army conscript from Ukraine who was captured in Crimea in May, 1942 and held prisoner until joining the Vlasov Army. This force of anti-communist Soviet POWs and others was formed to fight with the Germans against the Soviets in the final months of the war.

Demjanjuk, who is being tried in Munich because he lived in the area briefly after the war, emigrated to the U.S. in 1952 and gained citizenship in 1958.

He was extradited to Israel in 1986 after the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, or OSI, said it had evidence that he was “Ivan the Terrible.”

He went on trial in 1987 and was convicted and sentenced to death. But in 1993 the Israeli high court overturned the ruling and freed him after it received evidence that another Ukrainian, not Demjanjuk, was that Nazi guard.

At the trial, former Treblinka prisoners misidentified Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible. But this time, there are no Sobibor survivors who claim to remember him at all.

Thomas Blatt, a Sobibor survivor whose mother, father and brother were killed immediately on arrival at the camp in April 1943, is to testify at the German trial, but he concedes that even if he had encountered Demjanjuk, he wouldn’t be able to remember him after so many years.

“I don’t remember the faces of my parents right now,” said Blatt, 82. “How could I remember him?”

But he said he still looks forward to testifying about the role of the camp guards, whom he recalls seeing returning from the gas chambers, their boots splattered with the blood of Jews who resisted.

“That is what I can tell, only what the group (has) done. They were not regular guardsmen. They were murderers.”

Some evidence against Demjanjuk comes from statements attributed to Ignat Danilchenko, a now-deceased Ukrainian who once served in the Soviet Army and was exiled to Siberia following World War II for helping the Nazis.

In 1979, he told the Soviet KGB that he served with Demjanjuk at Sobibor and that Demjanjuk “like all guards in the camp, participated in the mass killing of Jews.”

But the OSI itself has questioned the validity of his statements, saying in reports that there are “numerous factual errors.”

If convicted, Demjanjuk faces a possible 15-year sentence, though he could be given credit for some or all of the seven years he spent behind bars in Israel. Even if acquitted, however, Demjanjuk will likely have to remain in Germany because his U.S. citizenship has been revoked.

“There’s no justice in this case, regardless of the outcome,” Demjanjuk Jr. said.

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