A GERMAN court convicted John Demjanjuk for his role in the killing of 27,900 Jews in the Sobibor Nazi death camp during the Holocaust, then set the 91-year-old free because of his age.
Holocaust survivors welcomed the Munich court’s verdict that Demjanjuk, who was exonerated in another war crimes case in Israel two decades ago, was an accessory to mass murder as a guard at Sobibor camp in Poland during World War II.
Demjanjuk showed no reaction as Judge Ralph Alt delivered the five-year jail sentence, and then said he would be released.
Alt said guards played an important role at extermination camps like Sobibor, where at least 250,000 Jews are thought to have been killed despite only 20 German SS officers being there. “He knew from the beginning exactly what was going on in the camp,” Alt said.
Demjanjuk was initially sentenced to death two decades ago in Israel for being the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” camp guard at Treblinka in Poland. The ruling was overturned by Israel’s supreme court after new evidence exonerated him.
Ukraine-born Demjanjuk has been in a German jail since he was extradited from the US two years ago. His lawyers had sought his release on age and health grounds.
He attended the 18-month court proceedings in Munich in a wheelchair and sometimes lying down.
“For us, the important thing is that he got convicted,” World Jewish Congress spokesman Michael Thaidigsmann said. “It’s not up to an organisation like us to say whether he should be in jail or not.”
Stephan Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said the verdict was “not revenge, but the execution of justice, even 65 years later”.
Vera Dejong, whose family were Sobibor victims, said she was “very much relieved I don’t have to have all the stress every time I have to come and sit here and hear all the horrible things that happened during the war and to my family”.
Demjanjuk, who was once top of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s list of most wanted Nazi war criminals, said he was drafted into the Soviet army in 1941 then taken prisoner of war by the Germans.
Before the verdict, his son, John Demjanjuk Jnr, said his father was a victim of the Nazis and of post-war Germany.
“While those who refuse to accept that reality may take satisfaction from this event, nothing the Munich court can do will atone for the suffering Germany has perpetrated upon him to this day,” he said.
Prosecutors faced several hurdles in proving Demjanjuk’s guilt, with no surviving witnesses to his crimes and heavy reliance on wartime documents, namely a Nazi ID card that defence attorneys said was a fake made by the Soviets.
Defence attorney Ulrich Busch told the court that even if Demjanjuk did become a prison guard, he did so only because as a prisoner of war he would have either been shot by the Nazis or died of starvation.
Demjanjuk emigrated to the US in the early 1950s and became a naturalised citizen in 1958, working as an engine mechanic in Ohio.