Ex-Nazi death camp guard dies

2012-03-18 09:19

Berlin - Former Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk, convicted last year in one of the last trials linked to the Holocaust, has died aged 91 at a care home in southern Germany, police said.

The Ukrainian-born man was found guilty of more than 27 000 counts of accessory to murder from the six-month period when he was a guard in Poland at the Sobibor death camp in 1943.

An ailing Demjanjuk was sentenced by a Munich court in May to five years imprisonment, but was released pending an appeal before a federal court, having already spent nearly two years in prison.

The judge justified his release by saying Demjanjuk was no longer a threat and was unlikely to abscond, being stateless, after the United States had revoked his citizenship.

Police in the southern state of Bavaria said he died on Saturday in a home for the elderly in the town of Bad Feilnbach. Prosecutors would conduct a routine investigation into the cause of death, they added.

Cause of death

The prosecutor's office opened a routine enquiry into the cause of death, police said.

The US Office for Special Investigations, which investigates Nazi criminals, called Sobibor "as close an approximation of Hell as has ever been created on this Earth."

An estimated total of 150 000 to 250 000 people were exterminated there.

Demjanjuk vigorously denied the charges and appealed his conviction, arguing throughout the proceedings that he had been a victim of the Nazis, having been captured by them as a prisoner of war.

"My father fell asleep with the Lord today as a victim and survivor of Soviet and German brutality from childhood 'til death," said John Demjanjuk jun, who spent years defending his father in courts of law and public opinion.

"History will show Germany shamefully used him as a scapegoat to blame helpless Ukrainian POWs for the deeds of Nazi Germany," Demjanjuk, who lives in Ohio, told AFP in an e-mailed statement.

Closure

For Jules Schelvis, a Dutch survivor of the Sobibor death camp, the death brought some kind of closure.

"The Demjanjuk affair is over. Demjanjuk has had his judgement and he has died knowing that he will be judged again," Schelvis, a witness in the prison guard's trial, told Dutch television.

While there was no irrefutable evidence of his presence or actions at Sobibor in German-occupied Poland, the German court, in a landmark ruling, said it was convinced he had been a guard there, and was thus automatically implicated in killings carried out at the time, mainly of Dutch Jews.

During his trial, Demjanjuk denied recruitment by the Germans to serve as a guard in an extermination camp, but never gave details about how he spent his time as a POW.

After the war, he went to live in the United States, raising three children there and working in the auto industry.

Found guilty

But in 1986, he was hauled before a court in Jerusalem accused of being "Ivan the Terrible," an infamous Ukrainian guard at the Treblinka death camp.

Found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death in 1988, he was freed five years later when evidence surfaced suggesting Israel had got the wrong man.

One of the Israeli judges, Dalia Dorner, remained convinced that he was the right man.

"He was identified by 11 survivors, and a former SS, it wasn't possible to get it wrong," she told Israeli public radio.

Demjanjuk returned to the United States, but when new information emerged suggesting he had served as a guard at other Nazi camps, he was stripped of his citizenship in 2002 for lying about his war record on immigration forms.

Legal wrangling

Years of legal wrangling ensued and he was deported from the United States to Germany in 2009 to face trial, this time for being at Sobibor.

After his conviction, the two dozen co-plaintiffs in the trial - relatives of those murdered at Sobibor - expressed regret that Demjanjuk never showed remorse.

Based on the precedent set by the Demjanjuk case requiring a less rigid standard of proof, the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre launched a new drive in Germany in December to catch the last perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Efraim Zuroff, director in Israel of the Simon Wiesenthal centre that specialises in tracking down former Nazis, deplored the fact that Demjanjuk had died "in a bed in a home in Germany rather than in a prison cell."

French Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld welcomed the news of Demjanjuk's death, saying that "a world without Demjanjuk is better than one with Demjanjuk."

Richard Prasquier, the president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish organisations, said German authorities' pursuit of Demjanjuk to the last had been justified.

"A number of guards did the dirty work for Germany," he said.

Considering the horrors of the Holocaust, "it is only normal that we try to track down those responsible - it is not relentlessness, it is simply because the extermination of an entire people is extraordinary."

Read more on:    germany  |  holocaust

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