Thursday, April 16, 2009


It is difficult to say what caught up with John Demjanjuk first – the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service or karma. But a few days ago, agents from the former knocked on the door of the modest Cleveland, OH home he has inhabited for over half a century, and physically carried him out in a wheelchair, for deportation to Germany. There he would stand charges for the execution of more than 29,000 Jews and others in Nazi death camps during World War II. Long thought to be Ivan the Terrible, Demjanjuk has been fighting for his life for three decades, all the while denying his identity. Even with overwhelming evidence that he is indeed a mass murderer, at the eleventh hour a U.S. court issued of stay and Demjanjuk was returned to his tiny Cleveland bungalow.

At 89, Demjanjuk reportedly suffers from kidney disease, a form of leukemia, gout, and spinal problems. He is said to be in constant pain, and his family contends the trip to Germany would kill him. So what do we do with this man who is most likely responsible for the extermination of men, women, children and the elderly, and who fled his country, dropped the “Ivan” from his birth name to become “John,” and lived out his days in the middle of middle America? Do we simply forgive him his trespasses and let the world move on, or should he be held accountable for the atrocities?

Demjanjuk was sentenced to death in 1988 by the Israeli justice system. That sentence was later reversed when the courts decided there was reasonable doubt about his identity. He was stripped of his U.S. citizenship, but then regained his American passport in 1998. In 2002, his U.S. citizenship was again revoked amidst charges that he served as a guard at Sobibor and Majdanek camps in occupied Poland, and at the Flossenbürg camp in Germany. In 2005, a deportation order was issued, and finally, just days ago it appeared he would indeed face the German tribunal. As of this writing, no final decision has been made public about Demjanjuk’s deportation.

We are left with these questions: Is it sheer coincidence that Demjanjuk bears striking resemblance to Ivan the Terrible? Is it also a coincidence that Demjanjuk’s job at Sobibor was reportedly to run the diesel engines that fueled the gas chambers, and then in Cleveland he worked as a diesel mechanic? Multiple survivors of German concentration camps have identified Demjanjuk as a guard in camps where they were imprisoned. Do we ignore their testimony, thereby discrediting their memories? Demjanjuk has lived in the U.S. since 1952. Had the INS initially known he had been a guard in Nazi death camps, he would not have been granted citizenship in the U.S. Does his age and infirmity now disqualify him from deportation on charges that he falsified his original application for citizenship?

The pending, potential prosecution and punishment of John Demjanjuk is now about humanity. His alleged victims and the survivors of the death camps would say he sacrificed his own humanity the moment he participated in the first of many executions. Others would say his inhumanity is not reason enough for ours, and that if he is prosecuted at this late date and imprisoned
or put to death, we have sacrificed our own humanity. We know of no international statute of limitations on prosecution for murder, but we do know that human beings of advanced age with severe health problems are often approached in an Egalitarian fashion, one in which we protect the weakest members of our society. Still, Demjanjuk failed to act to protect the weakest members of his society when he was a young man, if the accusations are accurate.

John Demjanjuk forces each of us to confront our own views on respect for human life. John Demjanjuk may just be the greatest ethical dilemma any of us have ever confronted.

1 comment:

Joan Eisenstodt said...

Thank you for writing this, Paul and for your reflections. I've watched this saga for so many years and, now, esp. have doubts about what is the 'right' thing to do -- what is morally, ethically, humanely right. As I watched this sick, old man being taken from his home, I wondered if we were doing the 'right' thing. As I thought about the many who may have died at his hands, it still struck me that it may not be right. That he has perhaps lived with his own hell -- not nearly as horrible as what he put others through -- and that now, at the end of his life, taking him away from his family may do nothing to make it right. Aren't we better off going after today's creators of hate and those who murder in horrific ways? Doesn't that send a greater message AND stop the killing in places like Darfur? Are there any answers that satisfy on this?