John Demjanjuk, a 91-year-old former guard at Sobibor death camp in Poland in 1943, was convicted in May, 2011 of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder for his role as a camp guard under the Nazi regime. He was sentenced to five years in jail. While Demjanjuk and his lawyers are appealing the decision, others are hailing the landmark court decision as a critical opportunity to root out former Nazis and bring them to trial.
This is the first instance in which prosecutors were able to "convict someone in a Nazi-era case without direct evidence that the suspect participated in a specific killing," writes the Telegraph
. Demjanjuk's guilt is based on the fact that, as a guard at a camp built solely for extermination, he is de facto
complicit in the deaths that took place at Sobibor.
Demjanjuk was deported from the United States, where he lived and worked as an auto worker, in 2009 to stand trial in Germany. He is currently living free in Munich while he appeals the court's decision.
What remains to be seen is whether the precedent set from the Demjanjuk case will apply to many others like him. The Guardian
writes that the precedent has yet to be tested against an individual who worked at a Nazi camp that was built for purposes other than extermination.
Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's chief Nazi-hunter, is optimistic that this court ruling will allow them to track down an estimated 4,000 remaining people (the youngest of them in their early 80's) who could be tried for the same offenses Demjanjuk was.
According to the Guardian
, Zuroff claimed that "we're talking about an estimated 4,000 people. Even if only 2% of those people are alive, we're talking 80 people – and let's assume half of them are not medically fit to be brought to justice – that leaves us with 40 people, so there is incredible potential."
The Demjanjuk trial and any that follow are only possible because murder and related charges are not subject to a statute of limitations in Germany, which opens up the possibility of trying elderly men like Demjanjuk for crimes perpetrated over 65 years ago.
In order to build upon the momentum from the Demjanjuk trial, Zuroff and Kurt Schrimm, the lead prosecutor in the case against Demjanjuk, are not waiting until the appeal is decided, which could take upwards of six to twelve months. The fact that all of the persons of interest for potential prosecution are already elderly, Zuroff and Schrimm feel that there is no time to waste in building cases against potential suspects.
"It's very clear that they're old, that's why we're preparing everything now so that as soon as there is a final decision, we can move immediately with charges," Mr Schrimm told the Daily Mail
The Demjanjuk trial, and any others like it that may be brought to German courts in the comings months, should raise some interesting and troubling questions surrounding the righteousness or ethics of trying elderly men for suspected crimes committed over 65 years ago.
While the memories of the Holocaust are still with us, and many still demand justice for the victims of unprovoked Nazi aggression, at what point can the search for the last remaining Nazis come to an end?