Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Is Demjanjuk really a mass murderer?

John Demjanjuk, an 89-year-old Ohio autoworker, was recently deported to Germany (by private jet, no less) to face charges that he was a concentration camp guard during World War II.

Many people are questioning this. After all, Demjanjuk has already been acquitted of similar charges (on appeal, during a trial in Israel) and is currently dying of Leukemia - pretty much making his deportation a death sentence whether or not he's found guilty.

The court in Germany accuses him of colluding with the SS to murder 29,000 people in Sobibor death camp during the war. Demjanjuk insists that he was a soldier with the Red Army during the conflict - and spent that period as a prisoner of war in a Nazi work detail.

It's a very complex and emotive situation. Despite almost seventy years having passed since those dark days, the Holocaust is still vivid in many of our memories (and thank goodness for that - dark forces are currently conspiring to wipe the Holocaust from history.)

So, of course we want everybody responsible to face the punishment they deserve.

But is that collective cause served by chasing Demjanjuk with such vehemence? This vendetta has proven devastating for his American-born family and incredibly costly for the American taxpayer (private transatlantic flights aren't cheap, you know!)

But, most importantly, it's basically given a death sentence to Demjanjuk; no matter what the court eventually rules. Even if he's acquitted of the charges (a second time) it's unlikely he'll ever live to see his home or family again.

Americans are generally good people - and I've spoken to many who still believe in the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty.'

Having given Demjanjuk that benefit of the doubt (at least, until a court can prove differently) it makes his treatment very questionable.

But to answer those valid criticisms, here is a brief rundown of the evidence leveled against this 89-year-old Ukranian:
Charges: The German court charge that John Demjanjuk was a Wachmann at the Trawniki concentration camp, later being posted to the Sobibor death camp. This made him partially responsible for the murder of 29,000 prisoners at Sobibor.

Evidence: To support their accusations, the German court can offer the following:
  • Despite claiming to have fought against the Nazis as part of the Russian 'Red Army,' Demjanjuk has a scar under his armpit, covering up an SS tattoo which proves membership of the Nazi elite Schutzstaffel.
  • Paperwork recovered from Trawniki include an SS I.D. that bears Demjanjuk's photo and his exact biographical data, including date of birth.
  • Statements of other Sobibor Wachmann (which ironically exonerated Demjanjuk in his '93 appeal) confirmed that he was present at Trawniki and Sobibor in some official capacity.
Defence: Demjanjuk claims he was a forced laborer during World War II, after being made a prisoner of war by the Nazis. However, he is unable to offer any proof of his whereabouts during the period in question.
I certainly have no desire to see an innocent old man stand trial, especially not after being dogged by allegations for over thirty years. However, the evidence presented by the German courts is fairly convincing.

Perhaps most telling of all was the statement made by the Israeli Supreme Court. During his appeal in 1993, he was aquitted of charges that he was notorious camp guard 'Ivan the Terrible':

"By virtue of gnawing new evidence, we restrained ourselves from convicting the appellant of the horrors [committed by] Ivan Marchenko at Treblinka," the court ruled. "However, the facts proved the appellant's participation in the extermination process. The matter is closed — but not complete. The complete truth is not the prerogative of the human judge."

The Israeli Supreme Court released Demjanjuk not because he was innocent, but because "new charges would be unreasonable given the seriousness of those of which he had been acquitted."

Justice can be very cruel and false accusations can wreck lives. However, in the case of John Demjanjuk, I honestly think the right thing is being done. Whether it's sixty years, or six hundred since the holocaust - no length of time is ever going to undo the crimes committed in the name of Hitler's 'final solution.'

If he's guilty, he needs to face justice.

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