With the trial and now death of war criminal John Demjanjuk the Shoah may finally have passed into history. Very few who lived through it are still alive and the chances of finding and bringing to justice the few perpetrators still at large are slim.
The thought that Ukrainian born Demjanjuk could be the last in this line of infamy will disappoint many . Not a big fish he, just a sordid little man who till the end refused to acknowledge his crimes. That he should die comfortably in bed at the age of 91 while so many millions were given no chance to live at all is a cause of great sorrow.
We should not bemoan the good fortune of those who managed to cheat justice to their dying day. The devil, they say, takes care of his own. We should rather look to the future of whither the Shoah now, and try and understand what can be learned from Demjanjuk’s trial and death. He was undoubtedly a small cog.. But its small cogs that turn large wheels, and without his like the Shoah would have remained the nightmare delusion of an evil man and his close acolytes. if there were no willing helpers it would not have taken place. Sadly it was not only Germans who were eager to make Hitler’s deranged and wicked plans a reality. There were those in almost every nation Hitler conquered who were only too willing to sign up to the destruction of the Jewish nation.
The lesson of Demjanjuk and the thousands of other” little men ,” who gleefully carried out the grotesque orders they were given, stands as a shameful warning to every future generation. We must drive home the lesson that Hitler’s mad schemes were carried out only because enough people warmed to the task..
The Jews must be the Shoah’s custodians. As its main victims they have that right for evermore.The Shoah though is too big a burden for any one people to carry alone. Insistence of exclusivity of history’s most horrendous crime will only see its importance and significance diminish and fade that much faster. We must make sure all nations have a share in it. If all possess it then it is everyone’s tragedy and burden.
If we are at the end of this long and disturbing road what good can we take from it? First we must compare and contrast the open and fair system in Western courts against the piano wire justice of those who willingly worked for, the Nazis. Demjanjuk was deported to Israel, home of the Survivor and The Sabra, from America, after three years of legal argument.Here he was accorded all the rights of an accused under Israeli law. Despite the hatred his presence aroused in the country there was to be no precedent set here for the Arab Spring more than 30 years later when justice for the dictator Ghadaffi was a bullet in the head.
Demjanjuk was tried for being “Ivan The Terrible,” of the notorious death camp Treblinka. Documents produced from Russia showed Demjanjuk and the bestial Nazi killer to be one and the same. Survivors from the camp identified him, and after a trial lasting almost 18 months he was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.
He immediately appealed the conviction and sentence. Five years later with the collapse of the Soviet Union new evidence emerged which was sufficient to raise serious doubts that he was “Ivan the Terrible.” and his appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court succeeded. Demjanjuk went back to his wife and family in America.
But this was far from the end of the story. If mirth is to be strained out of even the greatest of tragedies for the sake of human sanity I am minded of the Monty Python film “The Life of Brian” a spoof on the life of Jesus.which brought uproar and accusations of blasphemy from America audiences and mirth from British ones. In the film a group of disciples gather round a nonentity and take to sitting outside his home as a mark of respect. His mother in a bid to get rid of them screams “He is not the messiah, he is just a very naughty boy.”
Though not “Ivan the Terrible,” he was nevertheless terrible enough and in fact had been a guard at the notorious Sobibor camp. Here more than 27,000 Jews had died and though there was no direct evidence that he was individually responsible for any of their deaths he was part of the terror apparatus and as such responsible for the murder of them all. He was convicted and jailed for 5 years and was living in a nursing home pending his appeal.when he died.
As a man he didn’t amount to much. As a symbol of human savagery representing the Nazi death machine he is important. Without servants there would be no masters. No one to give orders no one to accept them.He was 90 when he stood in the dock in a German court room to be tried by the children and grand children of those on whose orders his crimes had been committed. Age however should be no barrier to the dock and incarceration of the guilty where the Shoah is concerned. The only maxim being that those who are put on trial are dealt with according to the law. Perhaps in the final analysis the comic fiction “The Life of Brian,” does have something to teach us and that is Demjanjuk was far more than simply a naughty boy, he was part of a killing machine. We should never lose sight of that fact.