Tuesday, May 12th, 2009
Does anybody else find the seemingly endless spectacle of John Demjanjuk pathetic, dispiriting and confusing?
Is this way the noble effort to call Nazi war criminals to account for their horrific misdeeds ends – with a furtive ambulance ride for an 89-year-old retired auto worker who’s been chased by federal authorities for three decades and then a late-night flight to Germany, where he has been charged with assisting in the killing of at least 29,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp?
I’ve been writing for Jewish newspapers since 1987, which is a year after Demjanjuk was deported to Israel and ten years after the Justice Department began pursuing him. The case — with dramatic ups and downs that included his conviction in Israel and the decision by the Israeli Supreme Court overturning it, his return to America and the extended legal battle over his re-deportation – has been a constant companion.
Why do I suspect it will not end in a way that will satisfy anybody, except maybe columnist and commentator Pat Buchanan, who claims Demjanjuk is the victim of “the same satanic brew of hate and revenge that drove another innocent Man up Calvary that first Good Friday 2000 years ago?”
The case, it seems to me, has become a lose-lose proposition for the Jewish community.
It would be an insult to survivors to say, well, he’s an old man, let’s just forget about it and let him die in peace in his Cleveland home. It would violate the Jewish community’s belief that one element in preventing future Holocausts is making sure every perpetrator of the last one, however minor a figure, is called to account for his or her crimes.
Giving up on Demjanjuk would be a victory for the Buchanans and the Holocaust deniers and for those who think the Jews are more interested in vengeance than justice. I wouldn’t want to see that happen.
But doesn’t this incessant pursuit of Demjanjuk – first accused of being the notorious Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka, then of being a guard at Sobibór and Majdanek – undermine the purity of a decades-long pursuit for justice that produced so many convictions of killers and enablers whose deeds were so carefully documented, a process that added so much to the historic and legal record of the Holocaust?
Could it be that the supply of Nazi war criminals was running out, so authorities had to focus on those for whom it was harder to make a legally compelling case for conviction?
I’m not suggesting federal authorities were wrong in demanding Demjanjuk’s re-deportation, or that their tenacity was inappropriate. Far from it; given their mandate, I don’t see how they had a choice. I think they did their best with the material at hand, and with a climate in which the whole idea of Nazi war criminals seemed like a relic from a distant past.
But I can’t help feeling that this week’s deportation won’t be the end of it, and that the case will drag on until nature takes it course, Demjanjuk dies of natural causes and the case is left with big question marks, not a solid, convincing historical and legal record.
Will the post-war pursuit of justice, with U.S. authorities and Jewish groups at the fore, be remembered for its many successes and for its enshrinement of facts in the Holocaust record – or for this last big and confusing case?
Will that be good for the Jews, good for survivors and good for Holocaust memory? Honestly, I don’t know.