More than 30 years of legal wrestling came to an end Thursday with a guilty verdict in a Munich court for John Demjanjuk.
The 91-year-old retired Ohio auto worker was accused of committing war crimes as a former Nazi guard at the Sobibor death camp during World War II. Demjanjuk was charged with 28,060 counts of accessory to murder of those who died during the time he was allegedly guarding at the camp.
He was sentenced to five years in prison, although the court may decide to credit his time already served while being held in custody during the trial.
“This could be the beginning of a new last wave of many [such] proceedings,” commented Cornelius Nestler, attorney for the plaintiff families of victims who died at Sobibor, on Wednesday.
An SS identity card that allegedly pictured a young Demjanjuk, born in the Ukraine, showed that the guard was trained at the SS Trawniki camp and then was posted to Sobibor.
Court experts and the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Special Investigations said the card appears authentic. However, attorneys for the defense maintained it was a Soviet KGB-produced fake, as did the FBI, according to The Associated Press. An Israel court acquitted him of being Ivan the Terrible, a guard at Treblinka, nearly 20 years ago, because of doubts regarding his identity.
Demjanjuk's defense attorney, Ulrich Busch, argued he was a man, like many, who had no choice.
“One of the guards related that the Nazis placed the prisoners in a line, and then asked whoever did not want to work as a guard in the camps to step forward. They then told them that anyone who dares to step forward would be killed on the spot,” Busch said.
Yad Vashem Comments
Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, issued a statement shortly after the verdict was announced.
“While no trial can bring back those who were murdered, holding those responsible to justice has an important moral and educational role in society,” Shalev said.
“The conviction today of Demjanjuk underscores the fact that even though the policies of the “Final Solution” -- the systematic murder of six million European Jews -- were set and carried out by the German Nazi regime, the murder could not have taken place without the participation of myriads of Europeans on many levels. Their role was also criminal.”