LONDON — John Demjanjuk, a 91-year-old retired auto worker from Ohio, was found guilty of accessory to murder and sentenced to five years in prison by a German court Thursday for his part in the killings of about 28,000 Jews at a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.
Judge Ralph Alt said he would allow Demjanjuk to be free pending an expected appeal. The defendant attended court in a wheelchair and the 18-month trial was suspended several times due to his poor health.
His lawyer, Ulrich Busch, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying his client was “just a scapegoat for the Germans. He has to pay for all the mistakes they made in the past and that’s not justice.”
But Martin Mendelsohn, counsel for the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center and two co-plaintiffs in the case, told Reuters news service that the judge’s decision to free the aged defendant during appeal “threw everyone in the courtroom a curveball and destroyed the hopes of the survivors of Sobibor.”
Demjanjuk was convicted on 28,060 counts of accessory to murder — one for each of the people killed in the Sobibor death camp in German-occupied Poland during the months that evidence showed he served there as a low-level guard.
Demjanjuk was born in the Ukraine in 1920 and joined the Soviet army at the start of World War II. He was captured by the Germans in 1942 and has said he later joined an anti-Soviet German fighting force. Prosecutors said he was trained by the Germans as a prison guard and served at several sites, including Sobibor.
After the war he lived in southern Germany and worked as a truck driver, according to a BBC profile. He immigrated to the United States in 1952 where he found employment as a mechanic in an auto factory in Ohio.
He was first sighted in the 1970s by American Nazi hunters, who said he was Ivan the Terrible, a camp commandant of Treblinka, one of the worst Nazi death camps.
Demjanjuk was sent to Israel for trial, losing his U.S. citizenship. He was convicted by an Israeli court after dramatic hearings involving Holocaust survivors as witnesses and sentenced to death in 1988. But his conviction was overturned in 1993 as new evidence surfaced showing the real Ivan was Ivan Marchenko, another Ukrainian.
Demjanjuk regained his U.S. citizenship, only to have it revoked in 2002 as judges concluded that there was evidence he was indeed a concentration camp guard and should be returned to Europe for trial. In 2008, a German court uncovered ID evidence that he had served at Sobibor, where an estimated 250,000 Jews were killed during its nearly 18 months of operation.
Demjanjuk has insisted that the ID evidence was a Russian KGB fake and that he was himself imprisoned by the Nazis as a soldier in the Soviet army.
After more than 30 years of relentless effort by various teams of prosecutors, some observers expressed their appreciation Thursday for the conviction.
Helen Hyde a 63-year-old head teacher of a girls’ high school near London, told the BBC she had followed the case in memory of her aunt, Helen Neuhaus, who died at Sobibor with her husband and two sons. “I had mixed emotions,” she said after the verdict. “I want to say I feel sorry for him because he’s an old, frail man, but I don’t.
“If the argument is that he (Demjanjuk) was just a cog in the wheel, then the cogs are still human individuals with a mind of their own.”