At first glance, it would appear that a modicum of justice has finally been meted out in the case of Nazi guard John Demjanjuk.
At a court in Munich last week, the 91-year old Demjanjuk was convicted of assisting in the murder of 27,900 Jewish men, women and children at the Sobibor death camp in Poland.
The presiding judge, Ralph Alt, sentenced Demjanjuk to five years in prison, and the trial succeeded in casting a spotlight on the evil committed against the Jewish people during the Holocaust.
And so Demjanjuk will at last be made to pay for his involvement in unspeakable acts of horror.
Or will he?
Upon further reflection, it becomes clear the outcome of this trial was in fact a travesty.
To begin with, consider the sentence. Five years for participating in mass murder? That comes out to little more than just 90 minutes in jail for each person he helped kill. Can that be called justice by any measure?
Further, moments after reading out the sentence, Judge Alt ruled there was no compelling reason to remand Demjanjuk until his appeal is heard. “The defendant,” Alt stated, “is released.”
Demjanjuk was just convicted of taking part in the greatest crime of the 20th century. Why should he now be permitted to roam free?
The judge, apparently, seems inclined to show mercy to Demjanjuk, a quality the latter never demonstrated to those he herded into the gas chambers.
Nonetheless, Alt insisted that incarcerating him even for five years is “not commensurate” with such an elderly defendant.
Speaking to journalists after the hearing, the judge noted that “It doesn’t seem likely that Demjanjuk will actually serve any more time in the end. The appeal will take at least a year and at that time his health may not allow putting him in prison.”
So there you have it. Even after being convicted, and even if his sentence is upheld on appeal, Demjanjuk is liable to remain a free man.
The injustice of this outcome is simply inconceivable and the message it sends is chilling: if you manage to evade justice long enough, you need not worry about paying for your crimes.
Consider the following: at the start of Demjanjuk’s trial in 2009, German prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz said, “As a guard, he took part in all the various parts of the extermination process after the deportation trains arrived. He willingly participated in the killing of the Jews because he wanted them dead for his own racist ideological reasons.”
Lutz noted that Demjanjuk unloaded Jews from the trains arriving at Sobibor, undressed them and herded them directly to their deaths in the gas chambers.
Hence, the leniency being shown to Demjanjuk by the German justice system is as misplaced as it is inappropriate.
To be sure, there is something reassuring about the fact that the perpetrators of the Holocaust are still being pursued. The Demjanjuk trial does prove once again that the atrocities inflicted on our people in the killing fields of Europe have not become just a stale detail of history.
And it will help inform a new generation of Germans about what their forefathers did to the Jewish people, and remind them of the everlasting debt they owe to our nation.
At a time when Europe is turning increasingly hostile both to Jews and to Israel, this is a lesson that bears reinforcing.
But there is still another disturbing element to this trial, and it has to do with its location.
With all due respect to the German prosecutor, the trial of Demjanjuk should have taken place in Jerusalem, not in Munich.
Jump back to July 1993. After Demjanjuk had been found guilty of being the infamous killer dubbed “Ivan the Terrible” of Treblinka, his lawyers appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court. The justices ruled that the case had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, so they set aside the conviction.
But in their decision, the justices also declared that even if Demjanjuk was not “Ivan the Terrible,” he had clearly done some terrible things.
They found there to be “overwhelming evidence” that Demjanjuk had “participated in murder” at Sobibor, which are the very charges for which he was just convicted in Germany.
Nonetheless, then-attorney-general Yosef Harish turned down pleas from Holocaust survivors and Knesset members and refused to retry Demjanjuk for his crimes at Sobibor. Various petitioners immediately turned to the Supreme Court in an attempt to force Harish’s hand before Demjanjuk left the country.
Astonishingly, at the hearings, the state’s representative, Nili Arad, told the justices that Israel would not pursue further legal proceedings against Demjanjuk, claiming “it is not in the public interest for this man to be put on trial.”
The justices refused to intervene, sadly demonstrating that a court of law is not always necessarily a court of justice. Shortly thereafter, Demjanjuk returned to the United States, where he was later stripped of his American citizenship and sent to Europe for trial.
In other words, the State of Israel knowingly and willfully allowed a participant in the Nazi murder machine to escape prosecution in Jerusalem, leaving it to others to do the job.
This was nothing less than an act of ignominy. There was clearly enough evidence to justify putting the Sadist of Sobibor on trial in Israel, but politics and public relations appear to have gotten in the way.
And so it took another 18 years for Demjanjuk to be convicted for his deeds. Who knows how many of those he tormented may have died in the interim, going to their graves without seeing justice done.
Like others, I followed the Demjanjuk trial through the press, hoping he would get his due. But the sense of bitterness and disappointment is palpable.
Israel had this murderer in its hands, and it let him go. And now, he will most likely never serve another day in prison.
Michael Freund is chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based organization that assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.