Rough But Essential Justice


“Execute true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another. ” – Zechariah 7:9

“Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere.” – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk, now 89 and in very frail health, has been flown to Munich, Germany to stand trial for his alleged role in the deaths of 29,000 Jews when he was a guard in the infamous concentration camp at Sobibor, Poland.

Demjanjuk is a familiar figure to the world Jewish community. In 1986, he was sent to Israel, where he was convicted and sentenced to death for being the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” death guard at Treblinka. Israeli prosecutors later cleared him of those charges after finding evidence that “Ivan” was another man, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The Israeli Supreme Court, following the dropping of charges, said that the evidence nonetheless proved that Demjanjuk had worked as a guard at Sobibor. He was released in 1993 because the court determined the seven years he had spent in jail were equivalent to the sentence he would have received for lesser crimes. The autoworker returned to his family in the Cleveland, Ohio area, where authorities launched the proceedings to strip him of his citizenship.

Last week, U.S. immigration officials delivered a notice to the Demjanjuk family home ordering him to surrender to authorities for deportation to Germany. A German Justice Ministry spokesman indicated that a warrant was issued for Demjanjuk’s arrest for being an accessory to murder in thousands of deaths.

Viewing the pathetic images of the frail, near-death Demjanjuk being loaded into the ambulance in Cleveland and being escorted to stand trial in Munich, many have said something to this effect: “Demjanjuk has suffered enough. He was falsely accused of being ‘Ivan the Terrible’ and was cleared of those charges in the same State of Israel which had convicted Adolf Eichmann. The Israeli Supreme Court humanely ruled that while evidence exists that he was the Sobibor guard, he had already served seven years while awaiting completion of the first case, so that should be sufficient justice.”

With this line of thinking we respectfully disagree. Germany correctly decided over 30 years ago to repeal the statute of limitations on crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis and their collaborators. The crimes are far too pervasive to be left to history with a shrug. Karl Linnas, another war criminal whose cause, like Demjanjuk’s, was shepherded by the ultraconservative Pat Buchanan, was elderly and in frail health when he was deported to Estonia. Linnas was found guilty and executed for his war crimes. Deportation was the right result then, and it is today.

In so opining, we need not prejudge the result of the proceedings in Germany. It is sufficient that U.S. authorities are convinced that German authorities reasonably believe they have evidence with which to prosecute Demjanjuk. On that basis, he must be made to stand trial in the very land in which the horrors of the Holocaust originated. Justice will determine the outcome.

After World War II, the four victorious Allied powers, the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, maintained the Spandau Prison for Nazi war criminals serving long or life sentences. At the end, only Albert Speer, Hitler’s obedient architect, remained imprisoned there until his 1966 release. Demjanjuk must face trial and, if convicted, must receive the justice he and his fellow Nazis and collaborators denied to their victims. While it is harsh to put a nearly 90-year-old man through such a process, it does not come close to matching the merciless harshness of the Nazi war crimes against humanity.