John Demjanjuk, a retired U.S. autoworker who was convicted of being a guard at the Nazis’ Sobibor death camp despite steadfastly maintaining over three decades of legal battles that he had been mistaken for someone else, died Saturday, his son told The Associated Press. He was 91.
Demjanjuk, convicted in May of 28,060 counts of being an accessory to murder and sentenced to five years in prison, died a free man in a nursing home in the southern Bavarian town of Bad Feilnbach. He had been released pending his appeal.
John Demjanjuk Jr. said in a telephone interview from Ohio that his father died of natural causes. Demjanjuk had terminal bone marrow disease, chronic kidney disease and other ailments.
It was not yet known whether he would be brought back to the U.S. for burial.
……Demjanjuk maintained that he was a victim of the Nazis himself — first wounded as a Soviet soldier fighting German forces, then captured and held as a prisoner of war under brutal conditions.
“I am again and again an innocent victim of the Germans,” he told the panel of Munich state court judges during his 18-month trial, in a statement he signed and that was read aloud by his attorney Ulrich Busch.
He said after the war he was unable to return to his homeland, and that taking him away from his family in the U.S. to stand trial in Germany was a “continuation of the injustice” done to him.
“Germany is responsible for the fact that I have lost for good my whole reason to live, my family, my happiness, any future and hope,” he said.
His claims of mistaken identity gained credence after he successfully defended himself against accusations initially brought in 1977 by the U.S. Justice Department that he was “Ivan the Terrible” — a notoriously brutal guard at the Treblinka extermination camp.
In connection with the allegation, he was extradited to Israel from the U.S. in 1986 to stand trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, convicted and sentenced to death. But the Israeli Supreme Court in 1993 overturned the verdict on appeal, saying that evidence showed another Ukrainian man was actually “Ivan the Terrible,” and ordered him returned to the U.S.
The Israeli judges said, however, they still believed Demjanjuk had served the Nazis, probably at the Trawniki SS training camp and Sobibor. But they declined to order a new trial, saying there was a risk of violating the law prohibiting trying someone twice on the same evidence.
Demjanjuk returned to his suburban Cleveland home in 1993 and his U.S. citizenship, which had been revoked in 1981, was reinstated in 1998.
Demjanjuk remained under investigation in the U.S., where a judge revoked his citizenship again in 2002 based on Justice Department evidence suggesting he concealed his service at Sobibor. Appeals failed, and the nation’s chief immigration judge ruled in 2005 that Demjanjuk could be deported to Germany, Poland or Ukraine.
Prosecutors in Germany filed charges in 2009, saying Demjanjuk’s link to Sobibor and Trawniki was clear, with evidence showing that after he was captured by the Germans he volunteered to serve with the fanatical SS and trained as a camp guard.
……As a young man Demjanjuk worked as a tractor driver for the area’s collective farm. After being called up for the Soviet Red Army, he was wounded in action but sent back to the front after he had recovered, only to be captured during the battle of Kerch Peninsula in May 1942.
After the war, Demjanjuk was sent to a displaced persons camp and worked briefly as a driver for the U.S. Army. In 1950, he sought U.S. citizenship, claiming to have been a farmer in Sobibor, Poland, during the war.
Demjanjuk later said he lied about his wartime activities to avoid being sent back to Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union. Just to have admitted being in the Vlasov Army would also have been enough to have him barred from emigration to the U.S. or many other countries.
He came to the U.S. on Feb. 9, 1952, and eventually settled in Seven Hills, a middle-class suburb of Cleveland.
I believe he did serve at Sobibor, probably as a survival tactic, and he likely engaged in the same maltreatment as the Nazis.