Israel Lets Demjanjuk Go Free, Making Return to U.S. Imminent
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Israel Lets Demjanjuk Go Free, Making Return to U.S. Imminent

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Holocaust survivors and their supporters are decrying an Israeli Supreme Court decision to allow acquitted Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk to leave the country.

On Sunday, the Supreme Court lifted the restraining order that has delayed Demjanjuk’s deportation, bringing to an end his seven-year legal fight against accusations that he was the notorious Treblinka death camp guard known as “Ivan the Terrible.”

The court at the same time rejected appeals by Holocaust survivors and other petitioners that Demjanjuk be tried for other Nazi war crimes.

Demjanjuk’s lawyer, Yoram Sheftel, said the retired Cleveland autoworker was waiting for the arrival in Israel of his family, who were expected to escort him back to the United States within days.

News reports said Demjanjuk’s son and son-in-law would leave for Israel midday Monday.

Demjanjuk was extradited here from the United States in 1986 to stand trial for war crimes committed as the sadistic gas chamber operator at Treblinka. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1988.

But on July 29 of this year, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the conviction, saying that there was now reasonable doubt that Demjanjuk was the notorious Ivan of Treblinka.

At the same time, the court found that there was compelling evidence that Demjanjuk had served as an SS guard at the Sobibor death camp and the Flossenburg and Regensburg concentration camps.

It was on these grounds that the petitioners, including Holocaust survivors and the World Jewish Congress, called for a new trial, arguing that Israel had an obligation to see the case through to completion.

With Sunday’s ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the recommendation of Attorney General Yosef Harish, who had argued that a new trial would not be in the interest of the state and that a conviction was uncertain.


The decisions provoked anger and charges that the court had damaged Nazi-hunting efforts worldwide.

“Today is a sad day for Israeli justice, for Israel and the Jewish people,” said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s office in Israel and one of the petitioners for a new trial.

Zuroff added that Demjanjuk’s release “is a serious blow to efforts to prosecute the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

“It signals an end of active Israeli involvement in efforts to bring Nazi murderers to justice, although much remains to be done,” he said.

Zuroff called on the Israeli government to “make a special effort” to bring to justice Alois Brunner, the lieutenant of Adolf Eichmann, whom Zuroff said was responsible for orchestrating the deaths of 128,000 Jews from Australia, Greece, France and Slovakia. Brunner lived for years in Damascus under an alias, but his whereabouts now are uncertain.

Zuroff also called for a review and reform of Israeli laws governing the prosecution of Nazi criminals and collaborators so as to preclude the release of other war criminals.

Otherwise, Zuroff warned, “the Holocaust will be relegated to the history books.”

The way was cleared for Demjanjuk’s return to the United States when the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled Aug. 3 that the Justice Department could not bar his re-entry.

Lawyers for the Justice Department subsequently appealed the court’s ruling, but on Aug. 31 the Court of Appeals turned down the appeal request.

The following day, Sept. 1, Attorney General Janet Reno announced she would not appeal the Cincinnati court’s ruling to the Supreme Court.


Following Sunday’s Israeli Supreme Court ruling, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center announced plans to launch a telegram campaign aimed at President Clinton and Reno to ensure Demjanjuk’s swift deportation following his anticipated arrival in Cleveland later this week.

“U.S. law demands that people who lied about their Nazi past do not have the right to live in our democracy,” Marvin Hier, the center’s dean, said in a statement.

“We expect to flood the White House with tens of thousands of telegrams to urge them to apply the letter of the law and move swiftly to deport Demjanjuk from this country.

“The real victims in this case are the innocent men, women and children who perished at Sobibor, not the guard who escorted them to the gas chamber,” said Hier.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that he found it “incomprehensible” that Demjanjuk would be allowed to return to the U.S.

Foxman, who is himself a Holocaust survivor, said that “the pain for survivors on seeing him (Demjanjuk) greeted as a hero by his supporters will be unbearable.”

He reiterated ADL’s appeal to the Justice Department to “act with all due deliberate speed to ensure that this Nazi war criminal not be permitted to remain in the United States one minute longer than required by the 6th Circuit Court.”

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said Demjanjuk’s “impending return casts a shadow on the United States.”

He added, “We will pursue him by every legal means” available.

Steinberg said he had spoken Sunday with the U.S. Justice Department, which, he said, had decided to allow Demjanjuk into the country on a temporary basis under the attorney general’s parole authority.

At the same time, the department intends to pursue whatever legal recourses are available to remove him from the country permanently, Steinberg said.

While some are pursuing legal efforts against Demjanjuk, others are turning to popular protest. Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York, president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha, vowed Sunday that his group would demonstrate outside the acquitted war criminal’s home in Cleveland.

“We will be at his home in Cleveland when he returns to a hero’s welcome, to declare that this man is not a hero but a Nazi,” Weiss said in a statement.


In Paris, meanwhile, a French judge has launched an investigation to see whether Demjanjuk should be prosecuted there for crimes against humanity.

Jean Paul Getty was commissioned Sept. 16 to act upon a complaint filed earlier by French Jewish lawyer Arno Klarsfeld. Getty will see if there is enough evidence of Demjanjuk’s involvement in the deaths of thousands of French citizens deported to the Sobibor concentration camp in March 1943.

Klarsfeld is one of the lawyers of the Association of Sons and Daughters of Deported French Jews. He is the son of Nazi-hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld.

Arno Klarsfeld told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that his first motivation when filing the lawsuit Aug. 20 had been to prevent Demjanjuk from stopping in Paris en route to the United States, as it was said he would.

“France is the last place in the world that should agree to have Demjanjuk on its soil even for a stopover between two flights,” he said.

“The thought of having him giving interviews to the press here was unbearable to the children and relatives of those he probably helped to assassinate.”

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Michel Di Paz in Paris.)

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