Demjanjuk Trial May Be Last For Holocaust Crimes
NEAL CONAN, host:
When the United States in 2009 sent John Demjanjuk to stand trial in Germany as an accused Nazi war criminal, many wondered: What's the point? Or as Deborah Lipstadt put it in a recent New York Times op-ed: Wasn't there something comic, even shameful, about dragging a dying man across the Atlantic to stand trial for a crime he committed over half a century ago? Shouldn't there be a statute of limitations, even for genocide?
Deborah Lipstadt teaches modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, and joins us now from our bureau in New York.
And thanks very much for being with us today.
Dr. DEBORAH LIPSTADT (Jewish and Holocaust Studies, Emory University): Thank you, Neal. It's a pleasure to be with you.
CONAN: And part of that question line comes - this is a man who spent six months as a guard at a death camp called Sobibor. This was not Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust.
Dr. LIPSTADT: True. It was not, well, first of all, I don't think Adolf Eichmann was the architect, but we can talk about that later.
CONAN: All right.
Dr. LIPSTADT: He's one of the operating - chief operating officers. But John Demjanjuk was certainly not as important as an Adolf Eichmann. He was not as high-ranking. He was Ukrainian. He was a guard. But he knew exactly what was going on. And, in fact, the judge - the German judge who found him guilty of being an accessory to murder in 28,000-plus murders made that point, that he had to know what was going on. And as every guard - the judge said every guard at Sobibor knew he was part of an organization with no other purpose but mass murder. So to say it was only six months when people like Eichmann were there - were doing this for four or five years is not really an excuse.
CONAN: And interestingly, he and Eichmann had the same excuse. They said: We had no choice.
Dr. LIPSTADT: Kill or be killed. Well, the truth of the matter is that no defense attorney, including Demjanjuk's, has ever been able to produce any evidence - defense attorney or historian - of someone actually being killed for refusing to participate. So the idea of kill or be killed is really, I think, a bit of a myth.
Moreover - they might have been sent to the Eastern Front. They might have been sent to do terrible jobs, more dangerous jobs to them, but they weren't forced to do that. And even if they had been forced, I think there is a - an ethical law that they very happily ignored.
CONAN: And another criticism is there was no specific evidence against John Demjanjuk charged. He was charged as an accessory to murder in the more than 28,000 deaths that occurred at the time he was a guard at the death camp. And basically, the allegation was, yes, he knew, therefore he did nothing to stop, therefore he was an accessory in all of these murders, but no specific allegation.
Dr. LIPSTADT: Well, I think there were specifics. I think - we have to remember that this wasn't the only court that heard the evidence. He actually had been tried in three different nations: Israel, the United -first the United States, then Israel, then Germany. And all three judicial systems found him - found that he wasn't Ivan the Terrible, as he was originally accused of being...
Dr. LIPSTADT: ...falsely accused of being. He was a terrible Ivan. And, in fact, it pays to see what - pay attention to what happened in Israel. After he's stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981 and extradited to Israel, he's put on trial. The trial lasts 17 months, an inordinately long time. He gets a guilty verdict and sentenced to death. And then, eventually, that verdict is overturned by the Israeli High Court, the equivalent of our Supreme Court. And they issue a 405-page ruling in which they say, it's clear to us. The evidence before us shows us that this man did terrible things. There is no question about that.
But he was brought here. He was extradited from the United States as being charged as Ivan the Terrible, a specific person. There is now very good evidence to say that's not the case, that this was mistaken identity. And even though we find him to have done terrible things, we have to overturn his verdict, because you can't switch indictments in the middle. And they let him go.
CONAN: And they let him go.
Dr. LIPSTADT: The attorney general refused to try him again. They say -he said the atmosphere was poisoned. And, again, the attorney general repeated that they had extradited him to the United States on the charge of being Ivan the Terrible and he wasn't, and they couldn't now charge him as something else.
And I think it's quite extraordinary that here was the victims' - the heirs to the victim, you know, the Jewish state saying we know you did a terrible thing but justice demands the legal system's trials. We have that - you've had a trial. You've been part of a legal system. The legal system demands that we let you go.
CONAN: Another parallel to Eichmann, who is the - had Demjanjuk been Ivan the Terrible, had the sentence been carried out, he would have been the only person other than Eichmann to be put to death by the Jewish state.
Dr. LIPSTADT: That's exactly right. It's, again, quite striking that in all the history of Israel since 1948, Eichmann was the only man ever sentenced to death and his sentence carried out. Demjanjuk could have been the second. There are other, you know, interesting parallels to veer away from Demjanjuk for just a minute.
When Eichmann was hung, he was cremated, and then Israel took his ashes and took them out to sea and buried him at sea so his burial place wouldn't become a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis. And I was, you know, thinking about that when I heard about bin Laden because the parallels are quite striking.
CONAN: Interesting. But getting back to John Demjanjuk, a lot of people said, wait a minute. He's been rendered stateless because he lied on his application for - when he came in to the United States. He's been tried in Israel. He's been tried in the United States.
Dr. LIPSTADT: Leave him alone.
CONAN: Enough already.
Dr. LIPSTADT: Right. Well, the saga did go on for 30 years. But part of the reason it went on so long is that he fought it every step of the way. He used all sorts of legal barriers, things - tools that were his to use. I mean, he had access to a legal system that he wouldn't have had certainly in the Ukraine of World War II, whether the preoccupied, you know, Ukraine or after it was occupied by the Germans. He dragged this out. He dragged this out for 30 years.
So, you know, on some level, yes, he was 91, but it wasn't dragged out because anybody was slow in doing this. He was using those legal maneuvers hoping, I think, on some level that he could delay it and people would say, oh, enough already, number one.
Number two, we've seen him - pictures of him in his wheelchair during the parts - portions of the German trial. He actually was in a hospital bed with an oxygen tank. But it's interesting to remember that when -just before he was turned over to the Germans and the United States, again, revoked his citizenship for the second time, his lawyer said to the court, you know, this is such a sick man. To be taken from his home, he's going to have to be taken on a stretcher.
And the OSI, the Office of Special Investigations of the Justice Department showed film clips from the day before of him walking unaided into an appointment getting in and out of a car without even a cane. And the next day he's on a bed, you know, unable to move. So we have no proof, let me put it that way, that this man is as handicapped as he presents himself to be.
CONAN: We're talking with Deborah Lipstadt, the professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies. Her op-ed "Demjanjuk in Munich" ran in The New York Times yesterday. She's the author of the book "The Eichmann Trial" and with us from our bureau in New York. Al's on the line, Al calling from Eden Prairie in Minnesota.
AL (Caller): Good afternoon. Great conversation. I just have a quick comment. I was just thinking when I was hearing you a few minutes ago mention the fact that you know, people weren't, you know, kill or be killed wasn't actually a fact of life. I guess my opinion is - and I'm definitely not standing up for what he did. It was definitely morally wrong.
But it's very easy for us in, you know, a free Western society, 60, 70 years later, to pass judgment on what we think what it was actually like to be in that situation back then. I'm not saying what he did was right, but, I mean, pretty much, people back then were really stupid.
They knew if you're going to be sent to the Eastern Front, you had a nil chance of coming back alive. So OK, you weren't shot like a.k.a what happened in Vietnam, you know, that famous picture, but still, I mean, you knew that you were not going to be coming back most likely alive. So, I don' know. I can't...
Dr. LIPSTADT: I think - Al, I think you're making an excellent point. It's very easy from the comfort - I'm sitting here in the NPR studios; it's raining outside, but I'm nice and dry inside and very comfortable -to make glib judgments. And, you know, I reached that conclusion. I realized that. Not talking about war criminals, but I teach - the courses I teach at Emory University have to do with the history of the Holocaust. And my students make those kind of judgments about the victims very often. Why didn't they fight back? Why didn't they run away?
You know, and you say to them, well, if you had runaway and your family was left behind, they were going to be deported right away. Would you runaway or not? And I always say to them, don't give me an answer. I don't want to hear an answer because it's too easy to make - say, what you would have done sitting here in the comfort of the classroom. So you're absolutely right.
But there is a very powerful book. It came out quite a few years ago. But it's an iconic book called "Ordinary Men" by Christopher Browning, who teaches in - at the University in North Carolina. And it's a study of a police unit that was turned - a German police unit that was turned into killers sort of overnight without the general preparation that often the SS men were given. And some of them refused to participate and nothing was done to them.
So you're right that they didn't know - or they knew they go to Eastern Front where - I don't think there was nil chance, because we do have people who came back from the Eastern Front. Half the people I used to meet when I went to Germany, when they were more veterans around, and there's still quite a few, all of them seemed to been on the Eastern Front.
But you're right, it was a dangerous thing. But nonetheless, that doesn't justify saying, well, therefore, I have to take part in a murder system. We do know that there were guards at some of these camps who ran away, guards who refused to participate. And it was a hard thing to do. And maybe it was a dicey thing to do. But morality still exists, especially when it's mass murder.
AL: OK. Well, thanks for the reply. Appreciate it.
Dr. LIPSTADT: Thank you, Al.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Al. There is another argument you make in your - Eichmann was a planner, a large cog of the Holocaust. John Demjanjuk, a very small cog.
Dr. LIPSTADT: Mm-hmm. That's a good point. And now Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, whose writings on the Eichmann trial have had far more - far longer legs than Eichmann himself and is, in some way, more important because she has generated a very important and vigorous and sometime feisty intellectual conversation, makes the point that when you're dealing with a machine, a large cog and a small cog are essentially of equal importance.
She wasn't saying that, you know, everyone is treated the same. But if you take out a small cog, the machine is not going to operate just as much if you take out a large cog. You, of course, look at the difference - how big a role did this person play in planning the murders and carrying out the murders?
But just to say: I only had a small role. I was only the guard who is pushing people into the gas chamber doesn't, I think, release you or negate the fact that you pushed people into the gas chambers. You took -while you were there in the six months you were serving as a guard, 28,060 people were murdered in the gas chambers, and you were part of that process.
CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. And let's see if we can get - this is Jerry(ph), Jerry calling us from San Francisco.
JERRY (Caller): Hi. Great show as always, Neal. A pleasure to talk to you.
CONAN: Thank you.
JERRY: My parents had some close friends. And the husband was in fact a Holocaust survivor who was involved in the Demjanjuk case. My memory fails me, but I believe he was brought to Cleveland to either help in identifying the man or perhaps testify.
And to be neither gratuitously graphic nor facetious, the only way I can described this man's body, as a result of what was done to him in a concentration camp is the human equivalent of crushing an aluminum can in your fist. And yet, he was a man of great humor and great strength then and a fine fellow. And just seeing him, that was enough for me. I mean, as if you needed more evidence that there really shouldn't be a statute of limitations on crimes of this nature.
And as I was saying to your screener, OK, if the guy is in a hospital bed on his last legs, literally, and or in a hospice or something then it becomes grotesque to try and try again. But under any other circumstances, I mean, please, there's no statute of limitations on something like this. Justice has to be served no matter how long it takes. And the memory of this has to be kept alive because the '30s and '40s are not ancient history.
Dr. LIPSTADT: Mm-hmm. I think you're absolutely right. And I think on your last point that the memory has to be kept alive, it's not just that the '30s and '40s aren't ancient history. It's that, you know, people like to say never again when - never again about the Holocaust, but the fact of the matter is again and again and again: Cambodia, Darfur, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda. Those killers are walking around now and they're very comfortable and so many of them feel very secure. And I think the only way we're going to try to impede - I'm not even going to stay stop, but impede genocide is to give the message that eventually there will be justice.
You know, people say justice delayed is justice denied. Well, I'd like to say in these cases justice delayed is justice diminished, but it's not justice denied. And there has to be justice both for the perpetrator and bringing them to justice, but justice for the man you just described, who was a friend of your parents and others for whom the scars are not as evident.
And I don't know if you're talking about someone from the Congo or someone from Rwanda - I was in Srebrenica a number of years ago, in July, when they commemorate the massacres there, the killing of 7,000 Muslims, Muslim men there, men and boys. Those killers should be apprehended. They should be punished.
It's the only way we're going to make people think twice when someone says on the radio, pick up your arms and kill, you know, Tutsis, or pick up your arms and kill Muslims or whatever it may be, or pick up your arms and kill Jews, to make people think twice.
CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call. I wanted to ask you, you referred earlier to the office in the Justice Department that pursued the war criminals who came to this country. It's being closed because there are believed to be no cases left. The Demjanjuk trial, you write, may be the last major trial of a Nazi war criminal to get public attention.
Dr. LIPSTADT: I think that's true. I think it's the end. It's - it marks the passage of an era. When I first started to work in this field and I began teaching courses on the Holocaust and I always, towards the end of the course, I would bring in a survivor. And I could pick that I want this particular survivor, someone to tell of an Auschwitz experience or someone to tell of an experience in hiding or someone to tell of another camp. Now, I'm lucky if I can get someone who was a child survivor. The victims, the survivors are passing and that era is ending.
And I think that we will not see court proceedings - as I said yesterday in The Times, we won't see more court proceeds at least relating to the Nazi crimes. And the burden and the responsibility of keeping that memory of what happened alive not as a lesson, not just for the sake of the memory, but that is - that would be enough, but also for the sake of somehow trying to impede the ways of genocide we've seen in the decades since.
CONAN: Deborah Lipstadt, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.
Dr. LIPSTADT: Welcome. Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And again, her op-ed appeared yesterday in The New York Times.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.