Globe Editorial

Demjanjuk: Justice, by a bizarre path

May 14, 2011

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In the end, the case of John Demjanjuk turned out to be much more convoluted than it once seemed. The Ukrainian-born auto worker from Ohio was sentenced to death in Israel in the 1980s for crimes during the Holocaust. That case was overturned when new evidence showed he wasn’t Ivan the Terrible, an infamous guard at the Treblinka death camp. Still, Demjanjuk’s hands weren’t clean. A court in Munich convicted him Thursday as an accessory to 28,000 murders, on the unusual grounds that his service as a guard at a different death camp, Sobibor, made it certain that he participated in the killing there. This controversial approach, in which prosecutors offered evidence for no specific acts of violence, could open the door to prosecuting other former guards.

In practice, the conviction may not lead to a vast new wave of trials, as the number of former Nazi guards shrinks with every passing year. Demjanjuk received a five-year prison sentence, but he will remain free on appeal. Because he is in ill health, he may end up in a nursing facility rather than behind bars. Still, if the names of Adolf Hitler’s death camp guards are recorded as criminals, if only for history’s sake, a measure of justice has been served.