NEW YORK (Apr. 19)
North American Jewish leaders praised Israel’s criminal justice system Tuesday in applauding an Israeli court’s guilty verdict in the war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk.
Leaders of the organizations said that they have begun to look beyond the case to the prosecution of additional war criminals and to mending the rifts between Jewish and Eastern European ethnic groups that arose as a result of the trial.
The Jerusalem district court ruled Monday that the retired Cleveland auto worker was the gas chamber operator at the Treblinka death camp known as “Ivan the Terrible.” He was found guilty of a string of offenses including murder, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people.
Demjanjuk could receive the death penalty during sentencing next Monday.
The trial met 106 times over 15 months and resulted in a 450-page judgment that took the panel 11 hours to read. Demjanjuk retains the right to appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court.
In a statement on behalf of the American Jewish Congress, associate executive director Phil Baum praised Israel’s legal system and the three-judge panel led by presiding judge Dov Levin.
The judicial system had an “exemplary record,” said Baum, expressing confidence that the court reached its verdict “on the basis of incontrovertible evidence and scrupulous adherence to due process.”
In Montreal, the Canadian Jewish Congress echoed its American counterpart, calling the trial in its statement “part of an international momentum that exists today to bring suspected Nazi war criminals to justice.”
In Los Angeles, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a statement released soon after the verdict was announced that Demjanjuk had received a fair trial while exhausting due process in the United States and Israel.
Demjanjuk lost his U.S. citizenship in 1981 for lying about his wartime past and was extradited to Israel in 1986.
AN IRONIC VERDICT
Hier noted a “bitter irony” in the guilty verdict. “This death camp guard who was determined to destroy any trace of Jewish life. . . must now end his life in the Jewish state — watching from the window the uninterrupted growth of Jewish civilization.”
Hier called Demjanjuk’s situation “a hard pill for any good Nazi to swallow.”
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Hier said the Demjanjuk verdict by no means indicated that an era of war-crimes prosecution had ended.
He said that in the last nine months his center had forwarded to West German authorities the names of 272 people wanted for murder during World War II, including Josef Schwammberger, 75, the commandant of labor camps in Poland said to be responsible for the torture and execution of hundreds of Jews.
Schwammberger is in an Argentine prison. Jewish groups are seeking his extradition to West Germany.
Hier said, however, that the Israeli government may be reluctant to mount another economically and emotionally exhausting trial on the scale of Demjanjuk’s.
But while Hier said he understood Israel’s frustration at being perceived as a “dumping ground” for Nazi war criminals, he still believes that Israel has a “unique moral responsibility” to survivors of the Holocaust to continue prosecuting war criminals.
In New York, Brooklyn District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman, a frequent critic of U.S. policy toward suspected war criminals, also said Tuesday that she hoped the Demjanjuk case would be the beginning, not the end, of renewed efforts to bring former Nazis to justice.
“The primary activity that must be taken is for Congress to pass laws that speed up the process” of pursuing and expelling war criminals, said Holtzman, who has authored such federal legislation. “The Demjanjuk case took 12 years. That’s undue process — unduly lengthy.”
Holtzman would also like to see a more thorough examination of America’s treatment, and alleged protection, of war criminals shortly after World War II. Few legislators are leading such an effort, she said.
The Demjanjuk trial “was on one hand a triumph,” she said. “On the other hand, it showed how willing our government was to be indifferent and how it continues to be indifferent.”
The American Jewish Committee also looked beyond the verdict, saying, “We must move to dampen the intergroup tensions that have arisen around this trial and assure that future generations understand the horror and criminality of those years.”
The statement was a reference to the belief by some organizations representing Americans of Baltic and Ukrainian descent that the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations and Jewish groups were using counterfeit evidence provided by the Soviets to investigate suspected war criminals.
Gary Rubin, program director of the AJCommittee, acknowledged in a telephone interview that much of the evidence used to convict war criminals, including Demjanjuk, was collected by Red Army troops in World War II and stored in Soviet archives. But Rubin said such evidence must pass vigorous challenges in American and Israeli courts.
“It’s our hope that after the spectacular nature of the Demjanjuk trial that the two communities can speak to each other and create the mutual understanding we enjoy with other groups,” said Rubin.