Yesterday, John Demjanjuk died in a German nursing home. Though twice convicted of participation in one of history’s great atrocities, with the assistance of clever lawyers, liberal judges and owing to his age and infirmity, Demjanjuk didn’t pass away in jail. Upon his death, his family once again declared his innocence and, due to a technicality in German law that says sentences are not final until the last appeal is ruled on, could even claim that his death voided his conviction. The New York Times obituary, though providing voluminous detail about his case, insisted on describing his case as merely a one of “questions” and “mysteries.”
But any objective examination of his story reveals little that could be fairly termed a “mystery.” Demjanjuk was a soldier in the Red Army who was captured by the Germans. Like many other Ukrainians he fought for Hitler’s army. But he was no ordinary turncoat solider hoping to evade the grim fate that befell most Soviet prisoners of the Nazis. He volunteered to be a death camp guard. Even if one accepts the doubts that were raised as to whether he was the infamous “Ivan the Terrible” of the Treblinka extermination facility, there is no doubt that he was a terrible Ivan who served at the equally horrific Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenbürg camps. But though enough proof of his complicity in these crimes was brought forward to secure two convictions many years later, like many another Holocaust criminal, Demjanjuk didn’t die inside prison walls. While his Holocaust-denying fan club (among whose members we must count pundit and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan) may claim the last laugh we must credit the hard work of activists and prosecutors who never gave up the fight to bring him to book for his crimes. In doing so, they did honor to the victims as well as to the cause of justice. We can’t help but note though that their efforts must be said to have fallen short since Demjanjuk never got the date with the hangman that he richly deserved.