Michael Horowitz, Israeli prosecutor of Nazi guard Demjanjuk, dies aged 69

Born in New York and raised in Holland before emigrating to Israel and eventually moving to India, Horowitz was a highly respected attorney known for his compassion

Michael Horowitz in an undated photo (Courtesy)
Michael Horowitz in an undated photo (Courtesy)

Michael Horowitz’s biggest claim to fame was his work as a top prosecutor in the famed Israeli war crimes trial against John Demjanjuk, the one-time Ohio autoworker who spent years trying to prove he wasn’t the monstrous “Ivan the Terrible” camp guard at Treblinka. But to me, Michael was a lot more than that. A deeply funny man, a mensch, a scholar, a person whose very existence was all about Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.

We buried Michael this week in Goa, India – where he and his wife Roley settled a few years back after many decades in Jerusalem. He drowned in the pool of his gated community while swimming his daily laps. It’s not clear how it happened. Maybe a blackout, maybe a heart attack. In recent years he had been battling multiple sclerosis. He was 69.

Michael’s prosecution team secured a conviction and death sentence against Demjanjuk in 1988.

The verdict was overturned five years later by the Israeli Supreme Court after new evidence emerged casting doubt on whether Demjanjuk was the actual Ivan The Terrible. Demjanjuk’s decades-long legal saga eventually ended in a conviction in Germany for having served as a guard at Sobibor and other concentration camps. He died in Germany in 2012 at age 91.

John Demjanjuk in Israel's Supreme Court in 1991. Demjanjuk was convicted by a German court for serving as a Nazi death camp guard. (photo credit: Flash90)
John Demjanjuk in Israel’s Supreme Court in 1991. Demjanjuk was convicted by a German court for serving as a Nazi death camp guard. (photo credit: Flash90)

Michael was recruited for the case partly because of his status as a polyglot. Born in New York and raised in Holland, he spoke Hebrew, English, German, Dutch, Italian and French, and was a student of Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. He spent many months in Europe interviewing witnesses for the case, and alleged Nazis as well. The Holocaust loomed large in Michael’s life. He was the only child of Marion Bienes, a Bergen-Belsen concentration camp survivor who went on to become an opera singer and noted animal rights activist in Holland. She chained herself to the White House fence in one notable act of zeal.

I spoke to Michael about his work on the Demjanjuk case. His basic point was that while the aging former Trawniki man might not have been the Ivan the Terrible, he was undoubtedly an Ivan the Terrible. I led The Associated Press bureau in Jerusalem from 2004 to 2010, and during that time Michael was an important source for our reporters on the Holocaust.

Michael’s career included a stint as a top aide to Police Minister Haim Bar-Lev. After moving to Israel in 1973 as a volunteer during the Yom Kippur War and joining the army, he had worked as an investigator in the fraud squad of the Israeli police. Michael was also a key player in establishing legal cooperation, including arbitration mechanisms, between Israelis and Palestinians.

Michael was a highly respected criminal defense attorney in Jerusalem for decades. He often said “no one is born a criminal” and was known for his compassion.

“Michael was one of the first public defenders in Jerusalem who served as an example of a tireless fighter, a sensitive and talented lawyer. We will always remember his sense of humor, optimism and eagerness to help his friends and clients. He was a really unique person and a true friend,” said a statement from the Jerusalem public defender’s office this week.

His empathy for others extended to non-humans as well. Roley, his wife, noted at his funeral that he even gave her a hard time about killing mosquitos, saying that’s what repellent is for.

“He would not eat meat or fish because he said I will not have anything killed for my pleasure, for me to eat. This was the kind of man,” said Roley.

Organizing a Jewish funeral in Goa, India was not simple. Chabad rustled up a “minyan” – the required 10 Jewish men – by essentially combing the hippie beaches of Goa for Jews. The burial ground is a church cemetery that bills itself as “interfaith.” But the truth is we only saw crosses.

Michael Horowitz’s funeral in Goa, India (Courtesy)

With Michael there, “now it’s interfaith,” quipped Roley, adding that the vision of Michael lying there amid a sea of crosses, head facing westward toward Jerusalem, would have struck him as a real Monty Python moment.

Roley herself has earned an excellent reputation as a kind of “tour guide to the stars” in Israel, with her encyclopedic knowledge of the holy land. She converted to Judaism before meeting Michael 30 years ago. She hails from an illustrious Indian family whose members include the author Arundhati Roy, Pranoy Roy (founder of NDTV, essentially India’s CNN) and the movie director Shonali Bose of “The Sky is Pink” fame.

Most of the tributes to Horowitz have included a mention of how funny he was. He was a proud Jew and Zionist, but he liked to call himself a “non-practicing atheist.”

“But I’m considering giving that up, too,” he would say. “No holidays.

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