Last week's federal court order to deport John Demjanjuk, the convicted Nazi guard once sentenced to death in Israel, is focusing renewed attention on the question of how to pursue justice in Holocaust-related cases.
Chief U.S. Immigration Judge Michael Creppy ruled last week that Demjanjuk, 85, a retired auto worker who lives near Cleveland, can be extradited to his native Ukraine. In 2002, Demjanjuk — once believed to be "Ivan The Terrible," the notoriously brutal guard at the Treblinka death camp in Poland — was found guilty of having served as an armed guard at the Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenburg concentration camps during World War II.
The ruling could end a 28-year fight by U.S. authorities to deport Demjanjuk. It comes after several years of concern that public attention on Holocaust matters had shifted from the hunt for the murderers to the fight for financial restitution of victims' property.
"This may be one of the very last high-profile cases that the Justice Department will be prosecuting," said Stuart Eizenstat, who led Holocaust restitution negotiations while serving the Clinton administration and earlier spearheaded the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum while working in the Carter White House.
"For those who say that he is an 85-year-old man and we should forget the past, I really disagree," Eizenstat said. "This refocuses us on the fact that what was ultimately involved was not just the loss of property, but it was the loss of life."
Justice Department officials first moved to deport Demjanjuk in 1977. In 1986, he was extradited to Israel, where he was tried and found to be "Ivan the Terrible," a guard who helped oversee more than 700,000 murders at Treblinka. He was sentenced to death, a punishment that Israel previously has imposed only on Adolf Eichmann, the main planner of the Nazi genocide.
Eventually, in 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the ruling, after evidence surfaced that while Demjanjuk had served as a Nazi guard, another man, Ivan Marchenko, was in fact the infamous "Ivan The Terrible." Demjanjuk was returned to America and his citizenship reinstated. Meanwhile, U.S. officials resumed their fight to deport him, charging that although he was not Ivan the Terrible, he still was guilty of lying to immigration authorities about his wartime service in Nazi camps.
Demjanjuk has 30 days to contest last week's court ruling to the Board of Immigration Appeals. He has denied he was ever a Nazi camp guard, saying he was in the Soviet Army but spent much of the war as a German prisoner.
Soviet-era documents released by officials in Russia were responsible for both Demjanjuk's exoneration as Ivan the Terrible and his subsequent conviction in American courts as a different Nazi guard. In Ukraine, Demjanjuk's native country, some see the case as one in a long line of national indignities suffered at Russian hands. Russia dominated Ukraine for centuries until the fall of communism in 1991.
Nationalist tensions could make Demjanjuk's possible extradition politically uncomfortable for Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, acccording to Shai Franklin, executive director of the American section of the World Jewish Congress. "We'll be very interested to see how the government of President Yushchenko ... disposes of this case, not only in terms of the legalities, but in terms of how they portray it to the Ukrainian public," Franklin told the Forward.
In recent days, tensions between Ukraine and Russia received international attention after a dispute between the two countries over natural gas prices led briefly to Europe-wide gas shortages. The crisis began last week when Russia's gas monopoly sought to increase the price it charges Ukraine for natural gas and Ukraine refused to pay, leading Russia to cut Ukraine's gas supply. Ukraine reportedly responded by siphoning off gas that flows across its territory from Russia to Europe, reducing European gas supplies by nearly half and prompting Russian charges of Ukrainian theft.
Observers also said that the Demjanjuk case could provide Ukraine, which in the past has failed to prosecute known Nazi war criminals, with an opportunity to confront its long legacy of antisemitism.
During the past year, the country saw a steep increase in acts of violence and vandalism against Jews, including several beatings in Kiev. In a speech last month, Yushchenko condemned antisemitism and xenophobia, and pledged to fight against discrimination in Ukraine.
But Ukrainian officials will not necessarily accept Demjanjuk for extradition, according to a December 29 report by Agence France-Presse. A Ukrainian government source told the news agency that Demjanjuk does not have Ukrainian citizenship and "this is a 100% reason to refuse accepting him."
American officials have said that if Ukraine does not accept Demjanjuk, they would consider sending him to Poland, where the crimes took place, or to Germany.
Thane Rosenbaum, a child of survivors and a lawyer who has written extensively on Holocaust-related issues, said he was certain that Yushchenko's government would not act against Demjanjuk. Rosenbaum questioned the American rationale for deporting, rather than prosecuting Demjanjuk.
"Why is it that the U.S. government deals with Nazi criminals only as an immigration matter?" Rosenbaum said in an interview with the Forward. "We are the architects of Nuremberg," which "provides universal jurisdiction when it comes to crimes against humanity."
"With everything that we've done against Demjanjuk, why are we now in a position to wonder what Ukraine will do?" Rosenbaum said. "That's the imponderable."