By Christian Kraemer

Convicted Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk leaves a Munich court after his verdict May 12, 2011. Photo credit: Reuters/Michael Dalder
A German court convicted John Demjanjuk on Thursday for his role in the killing of 28,000 Jews in the Sobibor Nazi death camp, then set the 91-year-old free because of his age.

Holocaust survivors at first welcomed the Munich court’s verdict that Demjanjuk, who was exonerated in another war crimes case in Israel two decades ago, was an accessory to mass murder as a guard at Sobibor camp in Poland during World War Two.

But they then expressed dismay at Judge Ralph Alt’s decision to free Demjanjuk despite handing down a five-year sentence.

“At the end he threw everyone in the courtroom a curveball and destroyed the hopes of the survivors of Sobibor,” Martin Mendelsohn, counsel for the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center and the lawyer of two co-plaintiffs in the case, told Reuters.

Demjanjuk showed no reaction while the judge read out his verdict. It said guards played a key role at extermination camps like Sobibor, where at least 250,000 Jews are thought to have been killed despite only 20 German SS officers being there.

“He knew from the beginning exactly what was going on in the camp,” Alt said.

But he said that since Demjanjuk had already been imprisoned on remand for two years, more time in jail seemed inappropriate at his age. “The defendant is to be let go,” he said. A court statement cited two other reasons: Demjanjuk had already spent eight years in prison in Israel and the crime was 68 years old.

Demjanjuk was initially sentenced to death two decades ago in Israel for being the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” camp guard at Treblinka in Poland. The guilty verdict was overturned on appeal by Israel’s supreme court in 1993 after new evidence emerged pointing to a case of mistaken identity.

The Ukraine-born Demjanjuk has been in a German jail since he was extradited from the United States two years ago and his lawyers had sought his release on age and health grounds.

He attended the 18-month court proceedings in Munich — the birthplace of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi movement — in a wheelchair, and sometimes lying down. He denied the Sobibor charges but otherwise did not speak at his trial.


Stephan J. Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told Reuters that the verdict was “not revenge but the execution of justice, even 65 years later.”

Victims’ groups said the main point for them was the guilty verdict and they refrained from criticizing the decision to set Demjanjuk free.

“For us the important thing is that he got convicted,” World Jewish Congress spokesman Michael Thaidigsmann said. “It’s not up to an organization like us to say whether he should be in jail or not.”

“It’s inappropriate that he be freed, but I’m not going to question the German judicial system,” said Elan Steinberg of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their descendents.

Vera Dejong, whose family were Sobibor victims, said she was “very much relieved I don’t have to have all the stress every time I have to come and sit here and hear all the horrible things that happened during the war and to my family.”

Demjanjuk, who was once atop the Wiesenthal Center’s list of most wanted Nazi war criminals, said he was drafted into the Soviet army in 1941 then taken prisoner of war by the Germans.

The guards at Sobibor were Ukrainian or Polish civilians or prisoners of war.

His son, John Demjanjuk Jr., said in an e-mail before the verdict that his father was a victim of the Nazis and of post-war Germany.

“While those who refuse to accept that reality may take satisfaction from this event, nothing the Munich court can do will atone for the suffering Germany has perpetrated upon him to this day,” he said.


Prosecutors had faced several hurdles in proving Demjanjuk’s guilt, with no surviving witnesses to his crimes and heavy reliance on wartime documents, namely a Nazi ID card that defense attorneys said was a fake made by the Soviets.

Guards at Nazi death camps like Sobibor were essential to the mass killing of Jews because extermination was the focus of such sites, according to prosecutors.

Defense attorney Ulrich Busch told the court that even if Demjanjuk did become a prison guard, he did so only because as a prisoner of war he would have either been shot by the Nazis or died of starvation.

Demjanjuk emigrated to the United States in the early 1950s and became a naturalized citizen in 1958, working as an engine mechanic in Ohio.

ZLM’s own Pastor Todd Baker offered this reaction:

So this is justice?! Please! This guy oversaw the mass murder of 28,000 Jews and the obtuse German court let him go free. That’s why there is a hell! So when another flawed and subversive decision is made by human courts, the Righteous and Perfect Judge will later overturn it at the Great White Throne of Judgment that awaits all the unrighteous and unsaved who will be cast into the lake of fire– perfect remedy for someone like Ivan the Terrible who supervised Jews being thrown into crematoriums (Revelation 20:11-15). One wonders if Demjanjuk would have been imprisoned if they were 28,000 non-Jews he killed. Probably so. The German “justice” system acts more like its Nazi predecessors with an asinine and egregiously unjust decision like this! This is a gross travesty of justice.

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