Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another


Awaiting Appeal on Conviction, Demjanjuk Dies

Ukrainian-American was among last living (alleged) Holocaust camp guards

Print Email
John Demjanjuk last May after his conviction.(Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

The problem with discussing John Demjanjuk, who died Saturday at 91, is that his idiosyncratic story and the continued uncertainty about his past prevents us from placing this Ukrainian-born American convicted twice of being two different Nazi camp guards into one of the neat boxes we have for those involved in the Holocaust. By the end some argued that the alleged crimes had taken place so long ago; that the perpetrator’s alleged role was so minor; and that he was simply so old and frail that the thought of punishment ought to be voided.

Demjanjuk maintained that he was an innocent—in more than one sense, a prisoner of war. Upon his death, his son, John Demjanjuk, Jr., insisted his father was a “victim and survivor of Soviet and German brutality since childhood” and argued, “History will show Germany used him as a scapegoat to blame helpless Ukrainian POWs for the deeds of Nazi Germans.”

One year ago, a German court convicted him of presiding over the murders of nearly 30,000 Jews at the Sobibor camp. He had been released to a nursing home near Munich pending an appeal, which has yet to be (and now won’t be) heard.

Soon after his arrest, Michael Moynihan reported in Tablet Magazine that an identity card that placed Demjanjuk at an SS training camp was credible.

Here are facts: in 1952, Demjanjuk and his wife emigrated to the United States from a displaced persons camp in Germany, with Demjanjuk claiming he had been a Soviet conscript captured by the Germans in 1942—and that that was the end of the interesting part of his story. The Demjanjuks had three children and eventually settled outside Cleveland. Demjanjuk worked at a Ford factory. In 1958, he became a citizen. The American Dream.

In the late 1970s, however, the U.S. accused him of lying on his immigration papers, and a judge ruled in 1981 that he had (he himself admitted he fudged the timeline on his papers). Demjanjuk, whose original first name was Ivan, was, some survivors alleged, “Ivan the Terrible,” a notoriously sadistic guard at the death camp Treblinka. In 1988, he became one of only two people ever convicted by Israel for being a Nazi war criminal—the other being Adolf Eichmann. He was sentenced to death, but then unanimously exonerated by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1993 when new evidence—which the U.S. apparently had all along—came to light. He returned to Ohio to live out the rest of his days, only to be rousted in 2009 and deported to Germany to stand trial for having been a different guard, one who presided over approximately 28,000 murders at the Sobibor camp. Last year, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, pending appeal.

What discussion about Demjanjuk has tended to miss is that while he was, like Schrödinger’s cat, someone whose true state we didn’t know, he was not, like Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously two different things. Either Demjanjuk was a complete innocent, and deserved due process and no further persecution; or he was a Nazi who helped murder thousands upon thousands of Jews, and deserved all the punishment morality permits us to heap on him. To this lightly informed observer, the evidence indicates he was the latter.

John Demjanjuk, 91, Dogged by Charges of Atrocities as Nazi Camp Guard, Dies [NYT]
Related: Still Terrible [Tablet Magazine]
The Eichmann Trial [Nextbook Press]
Earlier: Demjanjuk Convicted, Sentenced, and Set Free

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.


may he rest in peace, he is in our father’s care now. we surviors have persecuted him for the last 30 years. if he is guilty, justice is the Father’s. i hope there is forgiveness for my short comings also. we all need redemption


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Awaiting Appeal on Conviction, Demjanjuk Dies

Ukrainian-American was among last living (alleged) Holocaust camp guards

More on Tablet:

Obama: Denying Israel’s Right to Exist as a Jewish Homeland is Anti-Semitic

By Yair Rosenberg — The president draws a line in the sand in his latest interview