John Demjanjuk died. If you don’t know who he is, he was thought to be an infamous concentration camp, Ivan the Terrible. His story inspired the movie Music Box (with Jessica Lange). It turned out he wasn’t that Ivan. Still, he probably was a concentration camp guard and so lied on his application to enter the US.
So how criminal was he? Remember, the US, Israel and Germany spent 3 decades and millions of dollars trying to convict Mr. Demjnajuk. And after all this, he died of natural causes, and his case is at best controversial. His life in the US was peaceful and nondescript. He raised three kids and worked as an auto mechanic. So a war criminal?
Let’s accept that he was. In any case, the US, Israel and Germany spent at least 3 decades tying to imprison him, aided by forged documents and possibly lies from the old USSR. Was the effort really worth it? I don’t know.
Mr. Demjanjuk was a Ukrainian, and to be frank, the 20th century shit on Ukrainians, and then ignored their misfortune. Yes, the Holocaust was a probably the number one horror of the century, but if we looked for a second best horror amongst 20th century horrors, the Ukrainian starvation might be it, with China’s great leap forward in third place. We could assemble a list of the top 10 horrors if necessary, but that’s another post.
So who was this war criminal anyway? I didn’t know him, but I did know many kids whose fathers were very much the same. My high school in Passaic NJ had a large contingent of Ukrainian kids. Unlike the rest of us in Pope Pius XII HS, Passaic NJ (we were a polyglot group of Irish, Poles, Italians and so forth) the Ukrainians were different. Where the rest of us attended a garden variety Catholic church, the Ukrainians kids attended an Eastern Rite church (similar to Greek Orthodox). Most of us were born here; many to US born parents, but for the Ukrainians, many more were children of refugees, and a few were born in Europe in a displaced persons camp.
Between 1918 and 1945 the Ukrainians suffered a series of calamities. After the Russian Revolution, they resisted collectivization (and were treated roughly for it). Matters came to a head in 1932-33, when millions were starved (from 1.8 to 12 million). Some consider the starvation to be an act of genocide, some do not. Then a few years later, the Germans marched in (and treated many quite harshly). When the Germans collapsed, the Red Army marched in the other way; some Ukrainians collaborated with the Germans (so did the French and Dutch, by the way).
I started high school in1965, only 20 years after WW2 ended. The war, and what our parents did was a big topic of conversation, especially when meeting new kids. Many fathers fought in the war, my father was the rare one did not serve in any capacity; he was too old (he was 42 when the US entered the war). One Polish boy had pictures of his father in his Polish officer’s uniform (he fled to Great Britain when the Poles were overrun). About the war, the Ukrainians were often vague. They freely told their tale of oppression under communism, and of the great famine. A few even admitted to their father’s service in the Wehrmacht (the German Army). But some were curiously evasive. The story of the Ukrainian famine was news to us; similarly, we knew little about where the concentration camps really were - at the time, I just assumed they were all in Germany – none of the death camps were (I’ll take correction here). But as the story of the Holocaust became even bigger news and the gritty details came out, well… I recognized that this was what my HS chums were hiding.
For the sake of simplifying matter, let’s assume that Mr. Demjanjuk did work for the Nazis. He was a kid, no more than 20-24 during the war; and a kid in an occupied homeland – doubly occupied in a sense, since Ukrainians were largely unsupportive of the Communist government that was imposed on them. Add to that, that the layer of anti-Semitism that was strong across Europe, but especially so in Eastern Europe. So, ok, a 20-year-old, possibly anti-Semitic kid takes a job as a prison guard in a prison where (as far as he can tell) all the prisoners are going to die anyway. I accept that he might have committed a war crime, but the intensity of the effort to place him in prison belies his peripheral status in the holocaust.
Remember, the holocaust succeeded because of the society at large. The entire economy was mobilized, as was all of its science and technology. To transport the Jews you needed trains, and trains needed coal and water, and needed to be scheduled carefully within Germany’s and Eastern Europse busy transport needs. Then you needed detailed and extensive records, tabulated with IBM tabulating machines! You needed Zyklon B, the product of German chemistry (a shout out to IG Farben). Finally you had the Wehrmacht (the German Army). Remember, unless the German Army conquered, the Holocaust would have been limited to Germany.
So Demjanjuk was a war criminal, but he was a small cog in a machine that included every farmer who sold grain to the German government, and every miner who mined coal for the trains (and that was used for coal tar chemistry) and every train conductor who helped place a passenger train on a siding while a train full of doomed Jews went to a death camp.
There is blame enough for all.
.... oh, if you are Jewish, you might say, ok maybe it was unfair, but in the face of the Holocaust, this was a small unfairness compared to a collossal injustice. And you'd be right.