Born in 1920 in Ukraine as Ivan Demjanjuk, he served in the Red Army from 1940 and was captured by the Nazis in 1942 as a prisoner of war. He volunteered to join the SS aid troops who were in charge of guarding the German concentration camps. Demjanjuk was deployed by the SS in the concentration camps Majdanek, Sobibor and Flossenbürg among others.
Demjanjuk managed to go into hiding after the war ended, eventually finding a job with the American occupying forces in Bavaria. In 1958, he emigrated to the US, changed his first name from Ivan to John and was granted US citizenship. The first evidence of what he did between 1942 and 1945 emerged in the 1970s, and the Americans stripped him of his citizenship.
On May 12 last year, a Munich court finally sentenced Demjanjuk to five years in prison. The court found him guilty of more than 28,000 counts of accessory to murder in his position as guard of the concentration camp Sobibor in what is today eastern Poland. Because of his ill health, however, Demanjuk didn't go to prison, spending his last days in a care home.
The last big war criminal court trial
During the court hearing, which started on November 30, 2009, Demjanjuk appeared frail and his defense argued that he was hardly fit to stand trial. He was consistently brought into the courtroom on a bed and wouldn't actively participate in the trial. Daily proceedings were limited to two sessions of 90 minutes.
Many observers voiced complaints because the suspect appeared agile and very much able to communicate during the breaks, and yet insisted he wasn't able to follow the trial itself. A considerable number of international observers came to Munich to cover the trial, because the case against Demjanjuk was seen as one of the last big Nazi war crime trials that would ever be held.
Sentenced to death – but for somebody else's crimes
Demjanjuk had stood trial for crimes committed in concentration camps before, only to be freed later. In 1988, Demjanjuk was hauled before a Jerusalem court accused of being “Ivan the Terrible,” an infamous Ukrainian guard at the Treblinka death camp. The Israeli court sentenced him to death, but the verdict had to be revoked when evidence surfaced that proved that Israel had got the wrong man: “Ivan the Terrible” was not called Demjanjuk.
The Munich court sentenced Demjanjuk for crimes committed in the Sobibor death camp, after enough evidence was presented to prove that he had worked there. The court failed to prove individual crimes – which is usually the necessary basis for a sentence – but it took the position that the Sobibor concentration camp had been set up for the single purpose of killing people. This logic made anyone who ever worked there guilty of accessory to murder. According to the court, Ivan "John“ Demjanjuk was "part of the destructive machinery" in Sobibor.
The dead body of 91-year-old John Demjanjuk was found in the early hours of March 17 in a special-care home in the small village of Feilnbach in Bavaria. The causes of his death remain unclear. State prosecutors have announced that it will launch a regular preliminary investigation into Demjanjuk's death.
Author: Dirk Kaufmann / nh
Editor: Ben Knight