The Israeli government on Monday formally indicted former Cleveland auto worker John Demjanjuk for World War II crimes it described as “amongst the most serious and awful in human history.”
The action, which came seven months after Demjanjuk’s extradition from the United States to Israel, sets the stage for the Jewish state’s first war crimes trial since Adolf Eichmann was convicted 25 years ago of overseeing the systematic extermination of millions of European Jews. Eichmann was hanged in 1962.
The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, 66, was accused in the indictment of committing “crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against minorities” as a sadistic guard known as “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka death camp in Poland. He immigrated to the United States in 1952 and settled in Cleveland.
Demjanjuk faces the death penalty in a trial now expected to begin in December and to last for several weeks.
Demjanjuk has contended that he is the victim of mistaken identity perpetuated by Soviet authorities who provided important physical evidence against him in connection with previous legal proceedings in the United States.
The former Ford Motor Co. employee was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981 after being found guilty of lying about his past when he immigrated. A Soviet-supplied copy of an identity card issued in his name by authorities at a Nazi training facility for death camp guards was a key exhibit in both the citizenship case and his subsequent extradition to Israel.
Speaking to reporters outside the Jerusalem district courthouse Monday morning, Demjanjuk’s American attorney, Mark O’Connor, repeatedly raised the case of American reporter Nicholas Daniloff in questioning the reliability of Soviet-supplied evidence against his client.
Daniloff, who was released Monday in Moscow, had been accused of spying after what he and U.S. officials described as a Soviet secret police set-up in which he was unknowingly given classified information.
O’Connor said that his client has “incredibly powerful forces arrayed against him” but that he is confident that “if final justice will ever be done, it will be done here.”
The Demjanjuk case has stirred deep and powerful emotions in Israel, which sees as one of its reasons for being to remind the world of the Holocaust and to ensure that it can never happen again.
Justice Minister Avraham Sharir said Monday that he hopes the trial will again raise the question of “how humanity could fall to such an animal level.”
Sharir, speaking in an Army radio interview, added: “We have to remind ourselves of what happens to people without roots, a homeland, an army and institutions to protect it. We have to remind the young generation that they have to guard and protect the state.”
But other Israelis--though they believe that those responsible for the Holocaust must be punished, even more than 40 years after their crimes--are reluctant to reopen old wounds and wish that Demjanjuk could have been prosecuted outside Israel.
The Jerusalem Post expressed concern in an editorial Monday that if Demjanjuk is acquitted, it might somehow diminish the Holocaust in the eyes of the outside world. “Many Israelis will be waiting to be convinced that the holding of this war crimes trial was not a mistake,” the Post said.
Demjanjuk was not present Monday to hear the 26-page indictment read out against him. He is being held in the same cell in which Eichmann was held, at the Ayalon maximum security prison near Tel Aviv. The state attorney is expected to ask today or Wednesday that he continue to be held there until he goes to trial.
The indictment traced the evolution of what the Nazis called the “final solution of the Jewish question in Europe.” It also outlined in detail the way 850,000 Jews were transported in sealed railroad cars to the Treblinka death camp, about 50 miles east of Warsaw, stripped and led along a barbed wire-enclosed passage, called “the Road to Heaven,” to the gas chambers.