The death this past weekend in a retirement home in Bad Feilnbach, Germany of convicted Sobibor death camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk brings his decades-long saga to a practical end. The longest case in history of a Nazi war criminal, which began in the ’70s in Cleveland, Ohio, continued in Jerusalem, resumed in Cleveland and later in Munich, has permanently descended from the legal stage and will not include any additional courtroom sessions.

The Demjanjuk case has, however, had a historical and judicial significance way beyond its ostensible importance, and at this point we can already begin to sum up its impact on various key Holocaust-related issues.

I want to begin by praising the incredible perseverance of the American prosecutors of the Office of Special Investigations (recently renamed the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section) of the US Justice Department, headed by Eli M. Rosenbaum, who, despite myriad obstacles and heart-wrenching setbacks, persisted in their efforts to ensure that Demjanjuk would pay for his crimes and not be allowed to enjoy his final years.

They also played a very important role in convincing Germany to prosecute Demjanjuk, a critical factor in the ultimate resolution of the case and the final unequivocal establishment of his guilt and role in the Holocaust. The determination not to ignore a perpetrator of low rank and no command responsibility reinforces the important message of the individual criminal liability of all those who committed crimes during the Shoah.

The ultimate determination that Demjanjuk could not be convicted as the ”Ivan the Terrible” of Treblinka raised serious doubts in the minds of far too many people.

Having said that, one cannot ignore the mixed results of the trial in Israel. On the one hand, the proceedings were an unqualified success from an educational and moral point of view. (Who can forget the throngs that came almost daily to attend the court sessions at Binyanei Hauma, and the fact that those attending came from all sectors and strata of Israeli society?) But the identification problems and the ultimate determination that Demjanjuk could not be convicted as the “Ivan the Terrible” of Treblinka raised serious doubts in the minds of far too many people as to the ability of courts to establish Holocaust guilt many decades after the crimes had been committed.

In truth, in that regard, the Demjanjuk case did not accurately reflect the reality of the legal situation worldwide, and was the exception rather than the rule. In many countries, Nazi war criminals were being successfully prosecuted, and in fact, during the past decade alone, there have been successful legal decisions in 89 cases of Nazi war criminals.

Despite this, the trial undoubtedly soured the Israeli legal establishment on the Nazi war criminals issue, and no subsequent efforts have been made by Israel to seek the extradition of Holocaust perpetrators. It also unfortunately reinforced the lack of political will to bring Nazi war criminals to justice in the countries which had always been reluctant to do so and which could conveniently point to the trial as an example of the futility of such prosecutions.

John Demjanjuk in Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem in 1991 (Photo credit: Flash90)

John Demjanjuk in Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem in 1991 (Photo credit: Flash90)

The trial also cast a shadow of doubt on the value of survivor testimony vis-à-vis the establishment of personal guilt in Holocaust crimes. After all, the only evidence to link Demjanjuk to Treblinka was the testimony of the survivors, who apparently had mistakenly identified Demjanjuk as “Ivan the Terrible.” This was also no doubt a factor that strengthened the opposition of those countries that sought to avoid bringing such cases to justice. In this regard as well, the Demjanjuk case was the exception rather than the rule, but I believe that its negative impact in that respect persists to this day.

An important legal precedent

On the other hand, Demjanjuk’s conviction in Germany set an incredibly important legal precedent that paves the way for the prosecution in Germany of additional Nazi war criminals whom until now could not be brought to justice. Demjanjuk was the first Holocaust perpetrator convicted without evidence being presented to the court of his committing a specific crime with a specific victim.

Basically, the court determined that anyone serving in a “pure” death camp (one without an adjacent labor camp), whose sole purpose was the mass murder of Jews, was automatically guilty of at least accessory to murder. In practical terms, this precedent paves the way for the prosecution of any individual who served in the four pure death camps — Treblinka (785,000 Jews murdered), Belzec (600,000), Sobibor (250,000) and Chelmno (250,000) — as well as those who served in the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), which killed approximately 1,500,000 Jews.

Despite Demjanjuk’s efforts to escape punishment, and despite all his attempts to turn his latest trial into a farce, his guilt was established and justice was served.

Given the fact that these men spent significant periods of time mass-murdering Jews, the fact that they could not hereto be prosecuted was a terrible travesty of justice, which will, I hope, be at least partially rectified in the wake of the Demjanjuk conviction.

In conclusion, the proverbial bottom line remains that Demjanjuk was convicted in a court of law in the country under whose aegis he served as an armed SS guard in the Sobibor death camp, where he actively assisted in the mass murder of tens of thousands of Jews. Despite all his efforts to escape punishment, and despite all his attempts to turn his latest trial into a farce, his guilt was established and justice was served, and that, in view of the complications and history of this case, is no small achievement.

____

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Director of its Israel Ofice. His most recent book, “Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice,” chronicles his efforts during the past three decades to bring Holocaust perpetrators to trial all over the world.

His website is http://www.operationlastchance.org/