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

13th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

Sixty-four years after the end of World War II, Demjanjuk’s cat-and-mouse game with justice may finally be nearing its end after three decades as he headed for Germany on Tuesday after being deported from the United States.

Berlin -- John Demjanjuk, the 89-year-old accused by German prosecutors of abetting the murder of at least 29,000 Jews in a Nazi death camp, is right at the top of Nazi-hunters' most-wanted list.

Sixty-four years after the end of World War II, his cat-and-mouse game with justice may finally be nearing its end after three decades as he headed for Germany on Tuesday after being deported from the United States.

He is due to face trial in Munich for what his accusers describe as a sadistic past in what could well 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 from March until September 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 naked prisoners to death 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 which identified another man as "Ivan the Terrible."

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.

"As soon as he arrives in Germany, he will be questioned and tried," a court official said in a statement.

The contents of the German arrest warrant are not public as they have not yet been read to the accused.

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.

Now a wheelchair-bound and frail old man with, according to his family, kidney disease and blood disorders, his family say that jailing and trying him in Germany would cause him pain amounting to torture.

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.

However, on April 23, the US government provided documents from a doctor they said showed he was fit to travel and called on the court to lift his stay of deportation.

The Department of Justice also sent the court four videos said to show the octogenarian getting out of his car without apparent distress.

Demjanjuk's family argues the journey to Germany could kill him, despite being transported on a specially-equipped plane.

The family took its case all the way up to the US Supreme Court which ruled against their plea on May 7.

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."

Richard Carter/AFP/Expatica

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