Justice Better Served Late Than Not At All

Former Ohio mechanic and Nazi camp guard John Demjanjuk has been sentenced to five years in a German prison for his role in the murder of almost 28,000 people in Poland during WWII.

At 91, he was so sick and fragile that he could barely sit up for his own trial. His attorneys maintained that while the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk may have served as a guard, he was a victim of war crimes himself and shouldn’t be held responsible for the mass killings that took place under his watch. He was just low-level stooge, after all.

He’s probably telling the truth about being a grunt. This isn’t the first time Demjanjuk has been brought up on charges: Nazi hunters found him near Cleveland in the 80s and extradited him to Israel to face accusations that he was “Ivan the Terrible,” the notoriously sadistic psychopath who did horrific things like slice off women’s breasts at the Treblinka death camp. He was convicted based on the testimony of five eyewitnesses and sentenced to hanging, but a few years later evidence surfaced that cast doubt that he and Ivan were the same person and Israeli Supreme Court overturned the conviction.

But just because Demjanjuk wasn’t at Treblinka doesn’t mean he’s innocent. In 2001, more charges about his participation in killings at the Sobibór, Majdanek and Flossenbürg camps were brought up and a new trial was ordered, this time by Germany. It’s taken 11 years to get him back out of Ohio, across the ocean and into the courtroom to determine that yes, this old man was once a kid soldier who saved his own life by working as a cog in the Nazi extermination machine. He was there, he followed orders, he did nothing while people were tortured and killed.

Now some people, probably people who aren’t Jewish and didn’t grow up in a Holocaust subculture where you learned that much of your European ancestry was stripped of its wealth and dignity and sent to gas chambers, are saying “Aw, what’s the big deal; he’s almost dead anyway. Leave the old man alone. Forgive and forget already.”

And I say: I believe that forgiveness is the only true way to heal the soul. Yes, the crusty bastard is seriously ill and probably very sorry about the hideous nightmare of Eastern Europe that took place almost 70 years ago. But forgiveness does not mean giving up screwing down responsibility where it belongs. Simon Wiesenthal and the rest of the Nazi hunters have tirelessly scoured the entire globe to bring these criminals into justice’s light and will not stop until they’ve found them all or scared the rest into a life on constant paranoia and diarrhea.

Considering the nature of the crimes, being strung up in the town square by your old man ball sac wouldn’t be viewed as inappropriate in most cultures during the history of the world. Demjanjuk’s pissy five years isn’t such a big freakin’ deal, and he’ll probably die at home before he even rolls into prison. It’s a symbolic show to allow us closure and let God deal with what comes after.

So forgiveness, yes. But we’re sure as f*ck not going to forget.

This story of the Holocaust is almost over, but it will continue to be told in spite of the revisionists, the haters and the liars. Almost everyone who was there—who lived through the most heinous hell-on-earth any of us can imagine—is gone. Every year, there were be less survivors to share their firsthand accounts at our Yom HaShoah commemorations. One day, all the perpetrators will be dead, too.

But you and me will still be here, and our children, and God willing, theirs. And we’ll have to shoulder the task of remembering the truth of what happened, even though the young people will roll their eyes and complain that the world is different now (except that it’s not; anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe like some dystopian sci-fi novel.) We ain’t NEVER FORGETTING that when our grandparents (and in some cases, parents) were kids, a third of the world’s Jewish population was destroyed because of charismatic meglomaniacs and low-level grunts and apathetic neighbors while the rest of the world went about its business, and that it wouldn’t take much for it to happen again—not just to us but to Tutsis or Tamils or Sudanese or any other people. If we forget, even for a single minute, we’re leaving the door open.

Justice cannot arise or prevail without vigilance, and that must be our promise from generation to generation.

6 thoughts on “Justice Better Served Late Than Not At All

  1. I lived near Cleveland during the Demjanjuk years, while he was fighting extradition, and distinctly remember the fear and stress expressed by the large Jewish community–almost all of the elders having been Holocaust survivors. You’re right: Those of us whose families weren’t rounded up, separated, humiliated, tortured and murdered in the genocide are simply incapable of understanding how much those 60-year-old horrors still resonate in Jewish families.

    He’ll likely be dead before his prison term is up, but I hope there is solace in knowing official punishment has been meted out. Unofficial punishment has been ongoing since his Cleveland days–stripped of his life, his family, he is a pariah, an in-the-flesh reminder of the world’s worst days. His last quarter century on earth has been the antithesis of a quiet, comfortable, anonymous retirement. Karma spares no one.

  2. So well expressed. I’ve always been your first and foremost writing fan! I watched “A Film Unfinished” recently about the Warsaw ghetto. I had chills thinking some of the people were my great-grandparents, great uncles, cousins and more. We’re all related on this earth and the Holocaust will always be the greatyest inhumanity against man/woman.

  3. As a 3rd generation Holocaust survivor (my maternal grandparents were survivors), I always spend a few Sundays discussing with my 6th graders my family’s experiences during that time.

    And I see how, despite the varying degrees of knowledge on the topic, the students are so moved and affected by knowing that I have such a personal connection to the Shoah, and by hearing detailed stories, however painful.

    My hope is that by telling them, for example, stories of my young grandmother’s failed schemes and ploys in her slave labor camp, my grandfather’s escape from the Russian Liberation Army, their “wedding” in a DP camp, that I am passing down that truth in small yet powerful ways.

  4. hey @yenta i agree, this man may be almost dead, but in order for his soul to be forgiven the world needs some justice.

    it disgust me that even a few nazis are able to walk around this world free.

  5. Justice has it’s own ways …

    It is amazing that Ivan Joan D. (that was recognized by many Jewish injured by him or his commands) was not convicted at Israel, but in Germany.

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