Demjanjuk convicted, then released on appeal

Even as last week’s conviction of John Demjanjuk was being hailed as a long-awaited victory for justice, Munich state prosecutors were up in arms over a judge’s decision to release the Nazi war criminal from prison pending his appeal.

State prosecutors on May 16 not only appealed Demjanjuk’s release, but they also appealed his five-year sentence for being too lenient.

“It is a slap in the face of any survivor and the relatives of the victims,” Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said of Demjanjuk’s release.

John Demjanjuk (in wheelchair) leaves a Munich court May 12 with his lawyer, Ulrich Busch (center). photo/ap/matthias schrader

The prosecutors’ reasons won’t be made public until they are presented in writing, said a spokesperson for the Munich District II court, which found Demjanjuk, 91, guilty May 12 as an accessory to nearly 28,000 murders in the Nazi death camp Sobibor in occupied Poland in 1943.

Demjanjuk’s main attorney, Ulrich Busch, appealed the conviction. It is likely the appeals process will take more than a year, observers have said, and Demjanjuk is allowed to live freely during that time on grounds that he doesn’t pose a flight risk in view of his age, his frail health and the fact he is stateless.

As it is, his five-year sentence likely will be reduced by the two years he has spent in jail during the trial. And his health may ultimately preclude further incarceration, many have speculated.

Demjanjuk left prison in an unmarked vehicle May 13 for a Munich-area nursing home.

The fact that the former Ohio autoworker “was tried and judged, and for the last days of his life is confirmed as a perpetrator,” is more important than his release, Kramer said. He called the ruling “a very important step in the direction of justice after more than 65 years of injustice.”

Throughout the trial, Demjanjuk, wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses, lay impassively in a hospital bed that had been brought into the courtroom.

Cornelius Nestler, the Cologne-based attorney for 12 Dutch plaintiffs in the case, called the conviction “a milestone in the history of prosecution of Nazi criminals.”

“It serves notice on all human rights violators that the passage of time will neither erase the world’s memory of their terrible crimes nor end its commitment to holding them to account.”

Born in Ukraine, Demjanjuk immigrated to the United States after World War II. Hiding his Nazi past, he lived in suburban Cleveland starting in 1952. U.S. authorities uncovered his Nazi past in the 1970s.

Decades of legal drama ensued, including a trial in Israel in which he was convicted in 1988 of being “Ivan the Terrible,” a notoriously brutal Treblinka guard. But the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the verdict in 1993.

Demjanjuk, a Soviet POW in German hands in 1942, was sent to work at Sobibor, where he assisted in the murder of Jews, a knowing, willing accomplice in the “machinery of extermination,” Judge Ralf Alt said in his statement explaining the conviction. At least 167,000 Jews were gassed with carbon monoxide at Sobibor in 1942 and 1943, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

One avenue in Demjanjuk’s appeal might be to pursue a 1985 FBI report uncovered by AP that questioned the authenticity of a Nazi ID card used as evidence in the trial.

The defense maintains it is a fake produced by the Soviet KGB, but court experts and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations have said that the card is genuine.

The verdict came after 93 court days, elongated by monologues by Busch, who insisted that Demjanjuk was a scapegoat who was used by German justice to cleanse its own conscience for its failure to prosecute German war criminals.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.