NEW YORK (Jul. 29)
The decision by Israel’s Supreme Court clearing John Demjanjuk of charges that he was “Ivan the Terrible” did not exonerate the ex-Nazi of having served as a death camp guard.
But Holocaust historians and activists are concerned that the court’s decision to free Demjanjuk may be used by Holocaust-deniers as a vindication of their version of history.
“The Holocaust denial movement just got a booster shot,” said Charles Allen Jr., an authority on Nazi war criminals.
“The results of the trial are fueling the revisionists, who say that this didn’t happen,” agreed Eva Fogelman, founding director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers.
“It’s another example of them saying ‘the Jews put someone to trial and he didn’t do anything,’” said Fogelman.
“I find it morally, if not legally disturbing that somebody who was working actively as a guard in death factories should simply be seen as having been an innocent victim of a justice system that somehow went awry,” said Walter Reich, an expert on the Holocaust and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
Activists are also concerned that the Israeli court’s ruling will have a negative impact on other countries’ willingness to prosecute Nazi war criminals.
It will be used by “government bureaucrats in Canada, Australia and Iceland who have been dragging their feet on this issue for years,” according to Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
“They’ll use it as an opportunity to argue that they should not proceed” with cases against Nazi war criminals who have found refuge in their countries, Hier said.
Reich agreed. “It may make government authorities more wary of pursuing cases, and may put into question, to a greater extent, the whole effort at trying to prosecute Nazi war criminals,” he said.
The ruling will have special resonance for the U.S. Office of Special Investigations, the arm of the Justice Department that prosecutes war criminals. It was this office that originated the case against Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker.
Opponents of OSI “are going to run with it,” said Allen. The verdict could have an “exceedingly dangerous impact” on the future of Nazi war crime prosecutions.
According to Sheldon Klein, general secretary of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, “the danger is that groups and people who sought to shut OSI down in the past will take comfort in the ruling.”
‘CHILLING EFFECT’ ON WITNESSES
But Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), himself a Holocaust survivor, said the verdict would have “no bearing whatsoever” on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.
If anything, he said, those wanting the “monsters to be brought to justice will have their determination steeled by this exercise.”
The credibility of the testimony of Holocaust survivors has also been called into question by the verdict.
In this case, Holocaust survivors had their testimony contradicted by physical evidence presented in the trial and by testimony found in Soviet archives of former Treblinka guards who identified a different man as the notorious “Ivan.”
This could have a “chilling effect” on Holocaust survivors asked to testify at future war crimes trials, said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.
“What has been thrown into very serious doubt is the reliability of witnesses, particularly Jewish survivors,” said Raul Hilberg, a leading historian of the Holocaust.
“That is a very serious matter because we have had a cult of testimony, a cult of not questioning what a survivor said.
“We have made it into a kind of secret literature, and that has been dealt a blow by an Israeli superior court. That is, in the long run, the most important consequence,” said Hilberg.
According to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, “this is the age we’re in. Witnesses are dying, their memories are failing.”
Said Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and author of books on the extermination, “All the survivors had really is memory.
“If that is challenged, disputed and denied, what will happen tomorrow? I am going around with a heavy heart,” said the Nobel laureate.
Fogelman, of the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers, is concerned that this verdict — with its assertion that Demjanjuk was in fact a Nazi but would still be set free — would send the wrong message to today’s young neo-Nazis.
“The message is that even if you commit the worst crime in humanity, you can somehow get away with it,” she said. It is “telling these kids they can do whatever they want, and the likelihood they will be caught and prosecuted is very slim.”
(Contributing to this report were JTA correspondents Deborah Kalb in Washington and JTA staff writer Susan Birnbaum in New York.)