Nazi Criminal to Face Trial in Munich

November 29, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

John Demjanjuk (C) speaks to his attorney Mark O'Connor in a courtroom at the start of his trial Feb. 16, 1987, in a Jerusalem, Israel.  (Yaakov Sa''ar/GPO/Getty Images)
John Demjanjuk (C) speaks to his attorney Mark O'Connor in a courtroom at the start of his trial Feb. 16, 1987, in a Jerusalem, Israel. (Yaakov Sa''ar/GPO/Getty Images)
SOFIA, Bulgaria—Some say it will be the last Nazi trial of its kind—the most wanted Holocaust criminal still alive, John Demjanjuk, will be brought into a Munich courtroom in a wheelchair on Monday to answer charges for the assisted murder of 27,900 Jewish men, women, and children while he served in 1943 as a guard in Nazi Germany's notorious Sobibor death camp, located in Sobibor, Poland.

Prosecutors and victims’ families hope the trial will end with a sentence. If found guilty, the 89-year-old could spend up to seven years in a German prison. If acquitted, he will have to apply for citizenship—which might prove difficult, given that no country wants him, and he holds no passport. Some say the trial could go on for several years.

Last May Demjanjuk, also known as “Ivan the Terrible,” was deported from the U.S. after being denaturalized by the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI), based on evidence that he had lied to the authorities about his Nazi past when he applied for U.S. citizenship in the 1950s.

The trial will be held in Munich because German Jews were 1,900 of his alleged victims.

Demjanjuk denies ever having been in Sobibor, where between 167,000 and 250,000 Jewish people were exterminated in gas chambers. He claims he only served in the Soviet army and was captured by Germans in 1942.

However, the prosecution says they have Demjanjuk’s SS (Schutzstaffel, an elite Nazi quasi-military unit) ID card, which proves that he was in the Trawniki SS facility where guards were trained in how to kill Jews. He may have been one of the 120 guards in the camp, they say. There are also transfer orders of prisoners from Trawniki to Sobibor bearing the name Demjanjuk.

The prosecution will base its accusation on facts gathered by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI) and the Israeli court which sentenced him to death, but didn’t execute him, letting him instead go back to the U.S. where he became an autoworker.

Despite the protests of Demjanjuk’s family, doctors say he is fit to attend the court hearings. Even so, the sessions will be limited to two per day, 90 minutes each, considering his apparently declining health.

Demjanjuk is expected to speak on Monday, but that is not confirmed. The first three days of the trial will be spent on statements of 19 of the co-plaintiffs; a total of 30 plaintiffs will be present at the trial.

“The trial is very important because it sends a very powerful message that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators,” said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center as reported in The Jewish Chronicle. “Every victim of the Nazis deserves that an effort be made to find the persons who turned them into victims, so that they can be held accountable for their crimes.”

“The crimes committed are so horrible that the civilized world cannot afford to let them go unpunished,” OSI Director Eli Rosenbaum said to the Chronicle.

“Every opportunity needs to be taken, to send a message to would-be perpetrators of crimes against humanity, that there is a real chance that they will be pursued—not for months or years but if necessary for decades, even into old age and even into countries at great distances from those in which they committed the crimes,” he said.