JERUSALEM (JTA) — Though the death last weekend of John Demjanjuk brought a close to the seemingly never-ending quest for justice in the case of a man long accused of being a Nazi war criminal, it also brought a premature end to the legal battle over his legacy.
Though Demjanjuk, 91, was convicted by a German court of being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews in the Sobibor concentration camp, he was living freely in a German nursing home pending appeal. His son said Demjanjuk’s death before the legal process was exhausted meant he had died an innocent man. But the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Jewish leaders said he should be remembered as being guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Demjanjuk died Saturday at an old-age home in southern Germany, where he was free while he appealed his conviction last year for his role as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Poland.
"My father fell asleep with the Lord today as both a victim and survivor of Soviet and German brutality from childhood till death," Demjanjuk’s son, John Demjanjuk Jr., said in a statement from his home in Seven Hills, a Cleveland suburb.
The elder Demjanjuk, who was born and raised in Ukraine, moved to suburban Cleveland after immigrating to the United States following World War II. In 1952, living in the U.S., he changed his first name to John from Ivan. He died stateless, in the process of trying to regain his U.S. citizenship.
"Ivan Demjanjuk died guilty of his service in the Sobibor death camp and that is how he should be remembered, not as a person falsely accused, but as an individual who volunteered to serve in the SS, and who at the height of his physical powers spent months helping to mass murder innocent Jews deported to that death camp," said Efraim Zuroff, the Jerusalem-based chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in a statement following the announcement of Demjanjuk’s death.
"Justice was unfortunately delayed in this case, and hindered by complicating factors, but was ultimately achieved to the credit of the prosecutors in the U.S. and Germany who handled the case."
Following Demjanjuk’s conviction by a German court in May 2010, Zuroff reopened "Operation Last Chance," a last-ditch effort to track down Nazi war criminals.
"Previously the German prosecutors only brought cases in which they could find evidence of a specific crime with a specific victim, but in the wake of the Demjanjuk conviction, that no longer had to be the case," Zuroff told JTA last October.
Many have called Demjanjuk’s German trial the last big Nazi trial.
Demjanjuk was convicted on May 12, 2011and later sentenced by a Munich court to five years in prison, but was released to a nursing home pending his appeal.
Munich state prosecutors appealed the court’s decision to free Demjanjuk and also sought a longer sentence, saying the five years was too lenient.
Demjanjuk in the 1970s had been identified as "Ivan the Terrible," a notoriously sadistic guard at the Treblinka death camp. Holocaust survivors had identified his photo during a photo spread as part of the investigation of Treblinka concentration camp guard Feodor Fedorenko.
The U.S. Justice Department in 1977 requested that Demjanjuk’s citizenship be revoked since he lied about his Nazi service on his application to enter the country.
In 1986, U.S. authorities deported Demjanjuk to Israel to stand trial on charges of being Treblinka’s "Ivan."
A special Israeli court sentenced Demjanjuk to death, but the Israeli Supreme Court in 1993 in a 400-page decision overturned the verdict, saying there was reasonable doubt that Demjanjuk actually was "Ivan the Terrible." However, substantial evidence did emerge during the trial identifying Demjanjuk as a guard at Sobibor.
Demjanjuk returned to the Cleveland area in 1993, where he was greeted by protests outside his home by Holocaust survivors and activists, some wearing striped prison garb, led by activist Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y.
Demjanjuk’s citizenship was restored by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Matia in 1998.
One year later, the Justice Department again filed a request to strip Demjanjuk of his citizenship, citing his service in Sobibor. Matia ruled in 2002 that Demjanjuk’s citizenship should be stripped. His attorneys appealed the case up to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court rulings.
Demjanjuk was deported from the U.S. in 2009 and flown to Germany, which had requested his extradition.
Judge Dalia Dorner, who sat on the Jerusalem District Court panel that convicted John Demjanjuk of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 1988 — the ruling that was overturned — remains convinced that the verdict was just.
"I believe without a shadow of a doubt that he was ‘Ivan the Terrible,’ " Dorner told Ynet following his death. "But I still support the Supreme Court verdict that ruled he could not be convicted due to reasonable doubt.
"The most important thing is that these terrible times are on the public agenda again and they must be remembered, so such things never happen to us again."