The problem with discussing John Demjanjuk, who died Saturday at 91, is that his idiosyncratic story and the continued uncertainty about his past prevents us from placing this Ukrainian-born American convicted twice of being two different Nazi camp guards into one of the neat boxes we have for those involved in the Holocaust. By the end some argued that the alleged crimes had taken place so long ago; that the perpetrator’s alleged role was so minor; and that he was simply so old and frail that the thought of punishment ought to be voided.
Demjanjuk maintained that he was an innocent—in more than one sense, a prisoner of war. Upon his death, his son, John Demjanjuk, Jr., insisted his father was a “victim and survivor of Soviet and German brutality since childhood” and argued, “History will show Germany used him as a scapegoat to blame helpless Ukrainian POWs for the deeds of Nazi Germans.”
One year ago, a German court convicted him of presiding over the murders of nearly 30,000 Jews at the Sobibor camp. He had been released to a nursing home near Munich pending an appeal, which has yet to be (and now won’t be) heard.
Soon after his arrest, Michael Moynihan reported in Tablet Magazine that an identity card that placed Demjanjuk at an SS training camp was credible.
Here are facts: in 1952, Demjanjuk and his wife emigrated to the United States from a displaced persons camp in Germany, with Demjanjuk claiming he had been a Soviet conscript captured by the Germans in 1942—and that that was the end of the interesting part of his story. The Demjanjuks had three children and eventually settled outside Cleveland. Demjanjuk worked at a Ford factory. In 1958, he became a citizen. The American Dream.
In the late 1970s, however, the U.S. accused him of lying on his immigration papers, and a judge ruled in 1981 that he had (he himself admitted he fudged the timeline on his papers). Demjanjuk, whose original first name was Ivan, was, some survivors alleged, “Ivan the Terrible,” a notoriously sadistic guard at the death camp Treblinka. In 1988, he became one of only two people ever convicted by Israel for being a Nazi war criminal—the other being Adolf Eichmann. He was sentenced to death, but then unanimously exonerated by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1993 when new evidence—which the U.S. apparently had all along—came to light. He returned to Ohio to live out the rest of his days, only to be rousted in 2009 and deported to Germany to stand trial for having been a different guard, one who presided over approximately 28,000 murders at the Sobibor camp. Last year, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, pending appeal.
What discussion about Demjanjuk has tended to miss is that while he was, like Schrödinger’s cat, someone whose true state we didn’t know, he was not, like Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously two different things. Either Demjanjuk was a complete innocent, and deserved due process and no further persecution; or he was a Nazi who helped murder thousands upon thousands of Jews, and deserved all the punishment morality permits us to heap on him. To this lightly informed observer, the evidence indicates he was the latter.
John Demjanjuk, 91, Dogged by Charges of Atrocities as Nazi Camp Guard, Dies [NYT]
Related: Still Terrible [Tablet Magazine]
The Eichmann Trial [Nextbook Press]
Earlier: Demjanjuk Convicted, Sentenced, and Set Free