Holocaust survivors and their relatives wept yesterday as 91-year-old John Demjanjuk – the man billed as one of the world's last Nazi war criminals – was jailed by a German court for his role in the slaughter of thousands of Jews at the Sobibor death camp during the Second World War.
It was an emotionally charged ending to the trial of the Ukrainian-born former SS guard who was extradited to Germany two years ago after escaping justice in Europe, Israel and America for most of the last 66 years.
Wearing large black sunglasses and a grey prison sweatshirt, shaven-headed Demjanjuk sat motionless and expressionless in a hospital wheelchair as he was pushed in front of the judge at the court in Munich.
Throughout his 93-day trial, which began in November 2009, Demjanjuk had stubbornly refused to say anything. He maintained his silence as Judge Ralph Alt convicted him on 16 counts for complicity in the murder of 27,900 Jews at the Sobibor extermination camp in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1942 and 1943. Demjanjuk was sentenced to five years' imprisonment, but allowed to walk free pending appeal. The prosecution had demanded that he serve only a six-year jail term because of his advanced age.
Explaining to the court how as a so-called Trawniki SS guard, Demjanjuk played a key role at the death camp, Judge Alt said: "The people who arrived at the camp had no time to reflect. They were told that they had been brought there to work and had first to take a shower. But then they were stripped of their clothing and all of their possessions and beaten into four-metre-square gas chambers."
Relatives of those who were slaughtered burst into tears as he continued: "Panic broke out, there was screaming and crying and those inside tried desperately but in vain to open the doors. Then the big engines were switched on. And then pumped in a poisonous mixture of gas. After 30 minutes everyone inside was dead. The Trawniki men took part in every stage of this mass murder – without them it wouldn't ever have functioned." Among the 19 plaintiffs, most of them relatives of Dutch Jews who were murdered in the camp, was one of the last two men alive who witnessed the hell of Sobibor. Jules Scheldis, now aged 90, lost his wife and both parents, who were dispatched to the gas chambers as soon as they arrived in Sobibor in 1943. By chance, Mr Scheldis was singled out for a labour unit and sent to another camp, where he managed to survive the war.
Now frail and white haired, Mr Scheldis sat in court opposite the man who helped murder his wife and family. Tears streamed down his face as he was hugged by his granddaughter and other close relatives. "Have we won or have we lost?" he asked. "We have lost more than we have won, but justice has been done and I am satisfied," he told The Independent.
Barbara DeJong, a psychologist from Utrecht, lost her grandparents in Sobibor. Her father, Rob, who was only three when the Nazis rounded up his parents, survived the war by going underground. He was brought up by a family of Dutch farmers. Ms DeJong said her father never talked about what happened to his parents until one day they received an anonymous letter containing the wedding ring taken from her grandfather at the camp.
"Attending this trial has helped me to face up to the terrible fate suffered by my grandparents. I found solace by being in touch with the families of other victims," she said.
It was not immediately clear how much of his five-year sentence Demjanjuk would be obliged to spend behind bars. His defence lawyer, Ulrich Busch, insisted that yesterday's verdict was a mere "second in history" and he would immediately appeal against the ruling at a higher court.
Thomas Walter, the German lawyer who played a key role in bringing Demjanjuk to trial in Germany, said the verdict could set a precedent which would open the way for legal action against other surviving SS guards, including 90-year-old Alex Nagorny, who is reported to be living in Germany.
Yesterday's verdict was part of the rollercoaster ride that has been Demjanjuk's life as he successfully duped legal authorities on two continents to escape justice. Captured by the Americans at the end of war, he concealed his role as an SS guard and managed to convince his captors that he was one of the thousands of "displaced persons" roaming Europe at the time.
In 1953, he emigrated to America where he worked as a fitter in an Ohio car plant. Investigations against him were not started until 1977, when he mistakenly betrayed his whereabouts to the authorities in the Soviet Union. In 1986, Israeli investigators who had been pursuing his case under the mistaken assumption that he was the notorious Treblinka death camp guard "Ivan the Terrible" persuaded the US to extradite him to stand trial in Israel.
Demjanjuk was sentenced to death in 1988 and spent five years in a condemned cell. He was finally freed in 1993 after Israeli judges found that he was not "Ivan the Terrible". It subsequently emerged that Demjanjuk, who by then had returned to America, had probably worked at Sobibor.
Judge Alt said yesterday that the "most spectacular" piece of evidence which led to Demjanjuk's conviction was his SS identity card. The card was enough to persuade the US justice authorities to extradite him.
For the Holocaust survivors and their relatives, the fact that Demjanjuk's trial took place in Germany had special significance. "It is right and proper that Germany should sentence this man," Ms DeJong said. "Somehow it restores my battered faith in humanity."
Landmark Nazi war crime trials
The Nuremberg Trials
Nuremberg was home to the Nazi party's most resplendent rallies, but in November 1945, the city became the centre of the first international war crimes trial. Twenty-one defendants, including Hermann Goering (Hitler's chosen successor) and Rudolf Hess (Hitler's deputy), faced a series of charges including conspiring to wage war and crimes against humanity. Twelve high-ranking Nazis were executed afterwards.
Regarded as a landmark trial which changed the way Germany addressed its Nazi past, 10 men from commando unit "Tilsit" went on trial in 1958 accused of aiding the deaths of more than 5,000 Jewish men, women and children in Lithuania. They received prison sentences as "accessories to murder".
Having escaped to Argentina after the war, the man who played a key role in orchestrating the Holocaust was eventually abducted by secret agents and smuggled back to Israel to face trial. He was hanged for war crimes in 1962.
In 1987, the "butcher of Lyon" was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes committed during his time as Gestapo chief in Lyon. He had been condemned to death twice, but avoided this fate by living under a false name in Bolivia.
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