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John Demjanjuk

(1920 - 2012)

John Demjanjuk was a former Nazi guard at the Sobibor Death Camp and a convicted war criminal.

Demjanjuk (born April 3, 1920; died March 17, 2012) was born in the Ukrainian People's Republic only a couple of years before it was incorporated into the USSR. In 1941, he was drafted into the Soviet Red Army and after a battle in Eastern Crimea, he was captured and became a German prisoner-of-war.  In Germany, he was sent to a camp where special training was given to Soviet POW's in order to make them camp guards and as a guard he was stationed most notably at the Majdanek, Sobibor, and Flossenberg concentration camps.

Demjanjuk on trial in Israel, 1988

In 1952, Demjanjuk and his family left Germany for the United States and six years later he became a naturalized U.S. citizen while living in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio where he worked in a nearby Ford automobile factory.

In August 1977, the U.S. Justice Department began an investigation into Demjanjuk's Nazi past and in 1981 they revoked his U.S. citizenship, finding he had fraudulently become an American citizen after World War II by concealing his past. In October 1983, the government of Israel submitted an extradition request to the United States for Demjanjuk to be deported to stand trial in Israel under the Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law of 1950.

In February 1986, Demjanjuk was deported to Israel after a lengthy but futile appeals process in the United States.  The trial in Israel, charging Demjanjuk with being the so-called "Ivan the Terrible" who worked in the death camps supplying gas for the Nazi's, ended in April 1988 with a conviction on all charges. One week after the conviction, Demjanjuk was sentenced to death by hanging.  After appeals, however, in August of 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the initial ruling against Demjanjuk, feeling that there was reasonable doubt as to his being "Ivan the Terrible."

Back in the United States, Demjanjuk had his citizenship reinstated in 1988, however a new investigation, this time into his work as a guard at the death camps, was being looked into. In February 2002, a Cleveland district court again revoked his citizenship, a ruling that was eventually upheld by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004.

In December 2005, an immigration judge in the United States ordered that Demjanjuk be deported to either Germany, Poland, or the Ukraine and in June 2008, one month after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Demjanjuk's appeal, Germany announced it would seek his extradition to stand trial for war crimes in Munich. Kurt Schrimm, head of the special German office investigating Nazi crimes said that investigators "have managed to obtain hundreds of documents and have also found a number of witnesses who spoke out against Demjanjuk. For the first time we have even found lists of names of the people who Demjanjuk personally led into the gas chambers. We have no doubt that he is responsible for the death of over 29,000 Jews."

"Ivan the Terrible" ID card believed to have been a forgery

In March 2009, German federal court charged Demjanjuk with accessory to more than 29,000 murders of Jewish prisoners at the Sobibor death camp and the following month the German foreign ministry announced he would be transferred to Germany in order to face the charges. On Monday May 11, 2009, Demjanjuk was deported from the United States to Germany, taken from his suburban Cleveland, Ohio home in the presence of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. The previous week, the U.S. Supreme Court and a German court both ruled to deny a stay of deportation for Demjanjuk.

In November 2009, after a number of months of futile attempts by his family to cancel the trial on the basis that Demjanjuk was not medically capable or healthy enough to stand trial, Demjanjuk's trial began. In total, thirty-five joint plaintiffs were admitted to file in the case, including four survivors of the Sobibor concentration camp and twenty-six relatives of victims. The German Central Council of Jews issued a statement in regard to the extradition and the trial, stressing their symbolic significance. "All NS (National Socialist) criminals still living shall know that there won't be mercy for them, regardless of their age. They have to be held accountable for their inhuman deeds."

In February 2010, Alexei Vaitsen, an 87 year old Holocaust survivor living in Russia who escaped from Sobibor during the 1943 uprising, claimed that he recognized Demjanjuk as being one of the camp's personnel in a radio interview in Russia; however, the prosecuting attorney and defense lawyer in Demjanjuk current trial were skeptical about this particular claim. On April 14, 2010, Anton Dallmeyer, an expert witness, testified that the typeset and handwriting on an ID card being used as key evidence matched four other ID cards believed to have been issued at the SS training camp at Trawniki. Demjanjuk's lawyer argued that all of the ID cards could be forgeries, and that there was no point comparing them.

On May 12, 2011, Demjanjuk was found guilty of being an accessory to the murders of tens of thousands of Jews.

The German court charged Demjanjuk for his involvement in 27,900 murders and sentenced the 91-year-old to five years in prison. The court originally accused him of complicity in 29,000 murders, but the prosecutor's office later revised the number to exclude those who died during transport to Sobibor. The Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center said: "John Demjanjuk's Nazi past finally caught up with him."

On March 17, 2012, Demjanjuk died while at a retirement home in Germany where he had been placed by the German court system after they released him from jail due to his advanced age and deteriorating medical conditions.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry; JTA, (February 21, 2002); AP, (April 30, 2004); Haaretz, (December 29, 2005); The Washington Post (March 12, 2009); Jerusalem Post; CNN; Wikipedia; New York Times (March 19, 2012); Haaretz (March 18, 2012)