SWC's Chief Nazi-Hunter Efraim Zuroff Reflects on 33rd Anniversary of Sentencing of John Demjanjuk in Israel

April 28, 2021

In April 1988, based primarily on the testimony of survivors of the Treblinka death camp, the Jerusalem district court convicted Ivan (John) Demjanjuk of being the notorious "Ivan Grozny" (Ivan the Terrible), who was one of a pair of men, who operated the gas chamber at that death camp in Poland, where approximately 875,000 Jews were murdered during the years 1942-1943 and was known for his cruelty and sadism. A week later, on April 25, 1988, Demjanjuk was sentenced to death by hanging. The trial in Israel was particularly important because, after World War II, Demjanjuk had escaped from Europe to the United States, where he had been admitted as an innocent refugee fleeing his native Ukraine, and could not be punished for his crimes during the Holocaust in an American court, since they had been committed outside the United States, and his victims were not American citizens. In such cases, all the American courts could do was to strip him of his U.S. citizenship and deport him elsewhere, unless a country sought his extradition. Given the enormity of the crimes attributed to "Ivan Grozny," the decision to seek a country which could prosecute Demjanjuk on criminal charges, was an absolute necessity, and Israel's willingness to do so was warmly welcomed by the American authorities, and U.S Jewish organizations, and especially the Wiesenthal Center, which had actively lobbied for the prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators who had emigrated to America under false pretenses.

In the appeal process which followed the verdict, however, it emerged that this was a case of mistaken identity. Demjanjuk was indeed a Nazi war criminal, but not "Ivan Grozny of Treblinka, but just another terrible Ivan," as the Center's chief Nazi-hunter, Israel Director Efraim Zuroff, explained to Clyde Haberman of the New York Times. The question then became whether Israel should prosecute Demjanjuk for his S.S. service in the death camps of Sobibor and Majdanek and the concentration camps of Flossenburg and Regensburg, which were confirmed by historical documentation. The Israeli Supreme Court judges, however, were reluctant to so, because Demjanjuk's service in Sobibor had been included in the original indictment and extradition request from the United States (creating a probable case of "double jeopardy"), and there were no survivors from Sobibor who could identify Demjanjuk and testify as to his service there. A fellow guard who had confirmed Demjanjuk's participation in crimes in Sobibor and the other camps was deceased, and could not be cross-examined by the defense attorneys.

Under these difficult circumstances, the Wiesenthal Center decided to join eight Sobibor survivors, who had petitioned the Supreme Court to halt Demjanjuk's expulsion from Israel and try him for his service in the Sobibor death camp, where approximately 250,000 Jews had been murdered. Our concern was twofold. One that a documented S.S. death camp guard would escape the punishment he fully deserved, and that Israel's failure to implement an appropriate punishment would discourage the prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators in many other countries. To emphasize the latter point, the Center launched a public campaign entitled "Final Justice," which focused on 15 important Nazi war criminals who had still not been prosecuted, such as Alois Brunner, Eichmann's right-hand man who was responsible for the deportation to death camps of 128,500 Jews from Austria, Greece, France, and Slovakia; Maurice Papon who deported the Jews from Bordeaux, France, and hands-on Baltic murderers such as the Lithuanians Antanas Gecas, Leonas Pazusis and Jonas Stelmokas and Latvians Oskars Perro and Heinrich Urkis.

Unfortunately, our petition and additional ones by other concerned parties were all rejected and Demjanjuk was expelled back to the United States. He subsequently got his American citizenship back, but was again denaturalized by the U.S. Office of Special Investigations and ultimately deported to Germany on May 11, 2009, where he was prosecuted and convicted on May 11, 2011, for his service in the Sobibor death camp, and sentenced to five years in prison.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the Director, Simon Wiesenthal Center – Israel office and Eastern European Affairs and Coordinator, SWC Nazi War Crimes Research Worldwide


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