By Symi Rom-Rymer
I am quite conflicted over the current trial of John Demjanjuk, the alleged concentration camp guard at Sobibor accused of participating in the killing of 27,900 Jews during the Holocaust. This is actually the second time that he has been accused of murdering Jews during the Holocaust. The first time, he was convicted and sentenced to death in Israel as Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka; a sentence that was later overturned because of lack of evidence. It is clear from the newspaper reports that at 89 years old, Demjanjuk is frail and unwell. He is so sick, in fact, that he had to be taken from the courtroom on a stretcher at the end of the first day of his trial.
On the one hand, if found guilty, his conviction would offer, as Avner Shalev, the chairman of Yad Vashem put it, “a modicum of justice.” Moreover, this and other similar trials offer the German state an opportunity to compensate for judicial actions not taken earlier. But on the other hand, what kind of real justice would be served in sending an ailing and elderly man to prison? Perhaps this would help assuage German guilt, but that is not reason enough. The ultimate punishment, and one that arguably would most fit the magnitude of his crime, would be the death penalty. However, capital punishment is illegal in Germany, and has been since 1949, so that option is off the table. So we would be left with jailing a sick man who, in his current state, would probably serve just a few years before he dies. Moreover, in prison, he would have a roof over his head, three meals a day, and proper medical care. This is not true penance.
So, instead of simply sending him to prison, I propose something more unconventional: Liquidate his assets and give the money to a Jewish charity or to other groups that help victims of more recent genocides. Or, if he has no assets, start an organization on his behalf dedicated to speaking out against racism, xenophobia, and ethnic cleansing. Something of this nature would punish him while at the same time offer something positive to Jewish communities, and other brutalized communities, that could begin to compensate for all that he destroyed.
Neither the German state nor Demjanjuk has the power to bring back the thousands he allegedly killed. But he does have the ability, in some capacity, to offer care and support to the victims of his actions. Can you think of a more fitting punishment?
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.
Symi will be answering questions on her piece and the trial of John Demjanjuk on the blog next week. Please send all questions to firstname.lastname@example.org by Dec. 13.