Convicted Nazi guard John Demjanjuk dies in limbo

John Demjanjuk’s death last week brought a close to the long quest for justice in the case of a man convicted of being a Nazi war criminal.

Though Demjanjuk, 91, was convicted last year by a German court of being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews in the Sobibor death camp in Poland, he was living freely in a German nursing home pending an appeal. His son said Demjanjuk’s death before the legal process was exhausted meant he had died an innocent man. But the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Jewish leaders said he should be remembered as being guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Demjanjuk died stateless on March 17 at an old-age home in southern Germany.

John Demjanjuk’s passport

“My father fell asleep with the Lord today as both a victim and survivor of Soviet and German brutality from childhood till death,” Demjanjuk’s son, John Demjanjuk Jr., said in a statement from his home in Seven Hills, a Cleveland suburb.

The elder Demjanjuk, who was born and raised in Ukraine, moved to suburban Cleveland after immigrating to the United States following World War II. In 1952, living in the United States, he changed his first name to John from Ivan.

 “Ivan Demjanjuk died guilty of his service in the Sobibor death camp and that is how he should be remembered, not as a person falsely accused, but as an individual who volunteered to serve in the SS, and who at the height of his physical powers spent months helping to mass murder innocent Jews deported to that death camp,” said Efraim Zuroff, the Jerusalem-based chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in a statement following the announcement of Demjanjuk’s death.

Following Demjanjuk’s conviction last year, Zuroff reopened “Operation Last Chance,” a last-ditch effort to track down Nazi war criminals.

Many have called Demjanjuk’s trial the last big Nazi trial.

Demjanjuk was convicted on May 12, 2011 and later sentenced by a Munich court to five years in prison, but was released to a nursing home pending his appeal. Munich state prosecutors appealed the court’s decision to free Demjanjuk and also sought a longer sentence, saying five years was too lenient.

Demjanjuk in the 1970s had been identified as “Ivan the Terrible,” a notoriously sadistic guard at the Treblinka death camp. Holocaust survivors had identified him in photos used as part of an investigation of Treblinka guard Feodor Fedorenko.

The U.S. Justice Department in 1977 requested that Demjanjuk’s citizenship be revoked because he had lied about his Nazi service on his application to enter the country.

In 1986, U.S. authorities deported Demjanjuk to Israel to stand trial on charges of being Treblinka’s “Ivan.”

A special Israeli court sentenced Demjanjuk to death, but the Israeli Supreme Court in 1993 in a 400-page decision overturned the verdict, saying there was reasonable doubt that Demjanjuk actually was “Ivan the Terrible.” However, substantial evidence did emerge during the trial identifying Demjanjuk as a guard at Sobibor.

Demjanjuk returned to the Cleveland area in 1993, where he was greeted by protests outside his home by Holocaust survivors and activists, some wearing striped prison garb, led by activist Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y.

Demjanjuk’s citizenship was restored by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Matia in 1998.

One year later, the Justice Department again filed a request to strip Demjanjuk of his citizenship, citing his service in Sobibor. Matia ruled in 2002 that Demjanjuk’s citizenship should be stripped.

Demjanjuk was deported from the United States in 2009 and flown to Germany, which had requested his extradition.

Judge Dalia Dorner, who sat on the Jerusalem District Court panel that convicted Demjanjuk in 1988 remains convinced that the verdict was just.

“I believe without a shadow of a doubt that he was ‘Ivan the Terrible,’” Dorner told Ynet following his death. “But I still support the Supreme Court verdict that ruled he could not be convicted due to reasonable doubt.”