Demjanjuk: death camp guard who 'just wants to die in peace'

15th July 2009, Comments 0 comments

Sixteen years after being cleared of sadistic crimes by an Israeli court, the 89-year-old is set to face trial in Munich in what could be the last major trial dealing with the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews.

Berlin -- John Demjanjuk, charged in Germany with "complicity to murder" 27,900 people as a guard at a Nazi death camp, is a prize catch for Nazi hunters more than sixty years after World War II.

Sixteen years after being cleared of sadistic crimes by an Israeli court, the 89-year-old is set to face trial in Munich in what could be the last major trial dealing with the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews.

Suspect number three in the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's latest report on Nazi war criminals -- behind two others thought already dead -- Demjanjuk was a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in modern-day Poland in 1943.

US investigators have brought together witnesses who described how Demjanjuk was seen at Sobibor kicking Jews or hitting them with his rifle butt to get them out of railway wagons more quickly.

The US Office for Special Investigations (OSI), which investigates Nazi criminals, described Sobibor as "as close an approximation of Hell as has ever been created on this Earth."

After the war ended, he spent a short stint in Bavaria in southern Germany then moved to the United States in 1952 where he changed his name from Ivan to John and lived an unassuming life working as a car mechanic in Cleveland, Ohio.

But in 1977, witnesses identified him as the infamous concentration camp guard "Ivan the Terrible," one of the most feared and sadistic guards at the Treblinka death camp who would hack at naked prisoners with a sword.

Extradited to Israel in 1986, Demjanjuk was sentenced to death in 1988 but his sentence was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1993 when evidence emerged that showed Israel had the wrong man.

Demjanjuk returned to Cleveland but was accused again in 1999 when new documents surfaced showing he had worked at other death camps.

Stripped of his US citizenship in 2002 for lying about his past on his immigration form, prosecutors in Munich issued an arrest warrant for him on March 11 this year.

During his trial in Israel, Demjanjuk argued that he had fallen into Nazi captivity where he remained throughout the war and that he never volunteered to serve in the death camps.

He strenuously denied that he operated the gas chambers.

On March 3, 1948, he had himself registered as a displaced person -- a category reserved mainly for former concentration camp prisoners and forced labourers -- according to copies of documents provided by the International Tracing Service, which tracks the fate of Nazi victims.

Demjanjuk is now a wheelchair-bound and frail old man. His family says he suffers from kidney disease and blood disorders and that jailing and trying him in Germany causes pain amounting to torture.

His son John Demjanjuk Jr. has said that German doctors had given his father about 16 months to live because of bone marrow disease.

On April 15, in pictures beamed live on US television, he was carried moaning and wailing from his home before clinching a dramatic 11th hour reprieve as a US court ruled he was not fit to travel.

He won a stay of deportation but on May 11 he lost his legal battle and was loaded onto an overnight air ambulance flight to Munich, where he arrived the next day.

Following a medical examination in prison, doctors soon declared him fit enough to withstand a "partial" trial, limited to two sessions of 90 minutes per trial day.

The founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre Rabbi Marvin Hier argued: "I don't have any pity for the fact that he's 89 because I think of the victims he helped push into the gas chambers who would have loved to have 89 years."

After decades of legal wrangling and battling, Demjanjuk's wife Vera told mass circulation daily Bild in an interview: "We now only want to die in peace."

AFP/Expatica

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