Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Lest we forget, this mass murderer is free and at home

A great storm blew across Europe in 1993 and even the trees of Treblinka were torn out by their roots.

The Nazis had destroyed their death camp before the arrival of the Red Army almost half a century earlier, scattering the remains of hundreds of thousands of their Jewish victims. I wandered across and looked at the upturned roots. There were tiny fragments of bone in the undergrowth and in one twisted root, a human tooth; it had a dentist's filling which faintly reflected the grey Polish afternoon.

There is a bleak railway station, still with a 'Treblinka' sign over the platform, and a grass-covered way where a siding once took the cattle trains of Jews into the tall trees obscuring the camp.

I knew all about this wickedness. Only six years earlier, in Jerusalem, I had attended part of the trial of 'Ivan the Terrible', the death camp guard who had bludgeoned the Jews into the gas chambers of this awful place.

Day after day, Israeli schoolchildren would be taken to the modern little courtroom where John Demjanjuk was on trial, to learn at first hand what fate the Nazis - Demjanjuk was himself a Ukrainian - had visited on the Jews of Europe.

Demjanjuk's lawyer, an Irishman, insisted that the prisoner's identity card, a vital part of Israel's evidence, was a forgery. He was a handsome man -Israeli girls swooned over him - who took his lawyer's duties as seriously as the court took their responsibility for the accused. Demjanjuk was innocent, he insisted. And, after sentencing him to death and confining him to six years in a condemned cell, the court eventually came to the same conclusion. Demjanjuk was not 'Ivan the Terrible'. He was sent back to America. It was not Israel's finest hour.

So I was all the more stunned when, driving back from Treblinka to Warsaw after a 1993 film shoot, our Polish translator, a young female lawyer, asked if I had heard of the Ukrainian Nazi camp guard. Yes, I said, I had been at Demjanjuk's trial in Jerusalem. We were now travelling close to Sobibor, a brutal satellite camp of Treblinka, and our translator suddenly remarked that "everyone round here knows Demjanjuk". I turned to her in amazement. "Yes," she said. "His then-wife lived in Sobibor, not Treblinka, and lots of people knew her and knew him."

I was still in the Middle East three months ago when John Demjanjuk went on trial yet again, this time in Germany and - much more to the point - for his crimes against humanity at Sobibor.

He got a mere five years' imprisonment for complicity in the murder of 28,060 Jews at Sobibor and was allowed to go free pending his appeal.

I hope Demjanjuk ends his days in prison. But why didn't the Israelis get his identity right? Why didn't they try him for Sobibor? How come Milosevic dies in jail and Mladic and Karadzic await their day in court, while Demjanjuk is safely tucked up at home?

How many years after the murder of the man whose decaying tooth I found at Treblinka does his killer become irrelevant, the crime more important than the criminal?

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