Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Wrong Man?

"Demjanjuk is essentially on trial not for anything he did, but simply for being at Sobibor. No specific criminal acts need be alleged, much less proved. Page through transcripts of previous Nazi trials and you'll find a rigorous focus on particulars, because that is what should be required to convict a defendant. No one in any such trial ever was convicted simply on the basis of being present at the scene."

Scott Raab
Esquire magazine
Aug. 11, 2010

In 1956, Alfred Hitchcock made a film called "The Wrong Man."

Like some of Hitchcock's films, it was inspired by a true story. But, unlike those other adaptations, Hitchcock didn't have to change the facts much. The real story was bizarre enough. Even someone like Hitchcock couldn't embellish it.

In the movie, a struggling musician (played by Henry Fonda) tries to borrow on his wife's insurance policy so she can have some dental work done. But the man is fingered as the suspect in a couple of armed robberies at the office, robberies for which he was not responsible.

In court, the man's attorney builds a pretty solid case for mistaken identity. The man had been on vacation with his family when the first robbery occurred, and, at the time of the second, he had been suffering from a swollen jaw (which the people in the office couldn't have helped but notice).

But the defense runs into problems trying to locate someone to testify that the man was on a vacation trip at the time of the first robbery, and, eventually, a mistrial is declared because of a remark made by one of the jurors. Before the re–trial can begin, the real robber is arrested, and the musician is exonerated — but considerable damage to his life has already been done.

There is a lot more to that story, of course, but I don't really want to get into that today. I bring it up only because John Demjanjuk died today.

You might not be old enough to remember when Demjanjuk first came to the public's attention. It was in the mid–1980s when Demjanjuk, a U.S. autoworker, was deported to Israel to face trial on war crimes charges.

Demjanjuk was born in the Ukraine and served in the Russian Red Army early in World War II, but he was captured by the Germans and was recruited to serve in the German army while he was in custody. After the war, he and his family emigrated to the United States.

His indictment alleged that he was "Ivan the Terrible" (his given name was Ivan, but he changed his name to John when he became an American citizen) and that he had been a particularly brutal guard at the Treblinka and Sobibor camps.

Demjanjuk claimed he was a victim of mistaken identity, that he was not "Ivan the Terrible," but he was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to death by hanging. While Demjanjuk was in solitary confinement for the duration of his appeals, Israel's Supreme Court overturned his conviction, finding that there were plenty of reasons to doubt whether he really was "Ivan the Terrible."

The Court also found that Demjanjuk had been a prison guard during the war but not at Treblinka or Sobibor. I suppose it is possible that some prisoners might have seen him somewhere else and thought they had seen him at Treblinka or Sobibor. He was released, and he returned to the United States.

I would hardly call myself an expert on World War II, but my understanding of the way things were done in Nazi Germany — with efficiency always one of the Nazis' objectives — is that prisoners ordinarily were not transferred from one camp to another, that when they arrived at one, that was where they stayed.

(The prisoners, after all, were not soldiers. They came from what the Nazis would have considered the dregs of civilian society — the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and Communists. There may have been occasional logistical reasons for transferring prisoners, but my understanding is that it seldom happened.)

A decade after his first conviction, Demjanjuk was charged again and ordered deported. The new charges did not mention the earlier allegations that he was "Ivan the Terrible," but that continued to be the name that was used for him.

Nearly a year ago, Demjanjuk was convicted on more than 28,000 counts of being an accessory to murder at Sobibor. The number was determined because that is how many were killed while he was there. No evidence was presented linking him to a specific murder. His conviction has been under appeal.

When he died today at the age of 91, all of this ended for Demjanjuk — but there are questions that remain. And one of the most troubling may concern the apparent attitude that, because what happened in Germany was so heinous, someone must be held accountable for them, even if that person was not guilty or was coerced into cooperating with those who were.

Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer made a revealing comment in an interview with the Associated Press: "His case illustrates the principle that whenever even a very low–ranking Nazi criminal can be found and convicted, the importance is not in the sentence, not in the amount of time such a person may have to sit in jail ... the important thing is to bring the crime to the attention of the general public."

I know there are those who deny the Holocaust ever happened — in spite of ample evidence to the contrary. And I am not saying it didn't happen.

But this country has always stood for the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty — and tangible evidence of guilt must meet certain standards. Circumstantial evidence alone is not adequate.

I didn't participate in either of Demjanjuk's trials so I don't know all the evidence that was presented, but it seems like most, if not all, of the evidence against him was circumstantial.

For that matter, one of the reasons why the war crimes trials in Nuremberg were discontinued was because the defendants largely became enlisted men who could plausibly claim that they were following the orders of their superiors.

Ask any American veteran what kind of punishment he could expect if he refused to obey such an order — and then try to imagine how it must have been for someone like Demjanjuk, who has been described as a watchman, "the lowest rank of the 'Hilfswillige' prisoners who agreed to serve the Nazis and were subordinate to German SS men," according to AP.

Demjanjuk's son said today that his father had been "a victim and survivor of Soviet and German brutality."

We'll probably never know the truth of the matter. But one thing is clear in the hours since Demjanjuk's death.

Time is running out for the Nazi hunters. The war ended nearly 67 years ago, and anyone who was at least 18 at that time would be in his mid–80s today.

It may no longer be possible to find the real "Ivan the Terrible." It may not be possible to hold the people who truly were responsible for the deaths at Sobibor accountable for their acts.

Even the scapegoats are dying.

Was Demjanjuk the wrong man?

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