January 2nd, 2009
05:48 PM ET

What to do about those old men?

April 3, 2009

Reporter's Note:

John Demjanjuk’s birthday today – his 89th – likely will be his last in the United States. Demjanjuk will be removed from his home in suburban Cleveland this weekend and flown to Munich, where Monday he will be turned to German authorities.

The German government plans to try the Ukrainian immigrant as an accessory to the murder of 29,000 people while working as a guard at the Sobibor death camp from March-September 1943. Demjanjuk denies having been a camp guard, saying instead he fought in the Soviet army and later was a prisoner of war held by the Germans.

Experts believe that as many as 250,000 Jews – mostly women, children and the elderly – may have been killed at Sobibor, in Nazi-occupied Poland. Women were shorn of their hair and victims were marched naked into gas chambers, where the Nazi SS employed methods developed in “Operation Euthanasia.” Bodies then were dumped into pits and burned, but not before gold fillings were removed from the mouths of the dead.

Demjanjuk’s family says that he suffers from chronic kidney disease and has difficulty walking. He will be kept in a prison or a clinic until trial.

Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center told CNN that he was "thrilled" at the news of Demjanjuk's deportation, which has long been dependent on which country was prepared to accept him.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum welcomed the news, saying in a statement it "applauds Germany's efforts to hold the perpetrators of Nazi crimes accountable."

"Almost 65 years after the Holocaust, this act sends an important message about the enduring need to make the perpetrators of genocide, wherever they are, answer for their crimes," the statement said.

Two weeks ago, a former Nazi SS guard was freed by Austria a day after being deported from the U.S. Josias Kumpf, 83, of Racine, Wis., served as a SS “Death’s Head” guard at the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Germany and at the Trawniki Labor Camp in Poland. The Austrian justice ministry said that it told U.S. authorities before the deportation that Kumpf, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Austria, would be freed since he was younger than 20 at the time of the crimes and because he was never an Austrian citizen, nor were the crimes committed in Austria.


[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/01/02/art.nazi.deportation.jpg caption="U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey (R) and Fred Zeidman (L), Chairman of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC. The Department of Justice has donated copies of its records against alleged Nazi war criminals living in the U.S."]

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

What would you do about a small number of men, the youngest in their 80s and generally not in the greatest of health, who immigrated to the United States after World War II and have been living working-class American lives for decades. They have wives, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They also stand accused of participating in the extermination of 6 million Jews and countless others in Nazi concentration camps.

While exact numbers are hard to come by, an estimated 90,000 to 125,000 Holocaust survivors live in the United States, the youngest in their late 60s and early 70s. They remember grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles and siblings beaten or shot to death, starved in forced labor camps or gassed and their bodies burned in the crematoria of death camps whose names remain infamous.

Some forgive; many don't. They want justice, no matter how many years have passed.

What do you do about these old men, let nature take its course or find them, prosecute them and deport them?

The U.S. Justice Department chooses the latter. In 28 years its Office of Special Investigations has investigated 1,700 alleged Nazis living in the U.S. It has won cases against 107 men and women. The grounds for losing citizenship usually include failure to disclose war-time activities when admitted into the United States. Some 85 people have lost their citizenship and 20 never became citizens. Two-thirds were deported. Others left voluntarily. Some continue to fight to stay in this country. Cases are pending against about a dozen people.

Eli Rosenbaum is the director of the OSI. His father came to the United States as a teenager in the late 1930s, fleeing Nazi Germany. As a U.S. Army intelligence officer, Irving Rosenbaum was sent to inspect the Dachau concentration camp immediately after its liberation. Dachau was the first camp opened in Germany, to house political prisoners and Jews. Between Dachau and its sub-camps, more than 35,000 were murdered. It's not what the elder Rosenbaum told his son that made a strong impression, but what he could not bring himself to say. "His inability to even discuss the horrors he saw – he choked up and his eyes welled up with tears – made a very strong impression on me as a youngster," Eli Rosenbaum told a Jewish newspaper several years ago.

The Justice Department recently released 50,000 pages of documents from the prosecution of Nazis for war crimes. Those files included the case of Aleksandras Lileikis, who arrived in the United States in 1955, lived in Massachusetts and worked for decades for an encyclopedia company. One day, a young American prosecutor knocked on his door, with a document linking Lileikis to war-crimes as chief of a Nazi-allied security force that rounded up Jews in occupied Lithuania. "He very coolly looked at me and said, I've never seen that. Show me something that I signed," Rosenbaum recalled. A decade later, thanks to the opening of archives in the former Soviet Union, Rosenbaum did just that; specifically documents signed by Lileikis that dispatched Jews, including young children, to a forest where they were shot and their bodies dumped into pits. Lileikis lost his U.S. citizenship and fled to Lithuania but died before authorities there could prosecute him.

The best known of those fighting to stay is 88-year-old John Demjanuk. The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk immigrated to the United States in 1952, settled near Cleveland, worked in an automobile plant and raised a family. In 1977, the government moved to remove his citizenship for concealing war-time activities. In 1986, U.S. Marshals accompanied him to Israel for trial on accusations that he had been "Ivan the Terrible," a feared guard at the Treblinka death camp. A makeshift courtroom was created in a Jerusalem theater, to accommodate a crowd for the most notable trial since Israeli agents snatched Adolf Eichmann, "the architect of the Holocaust," off an Argentine street and whisked him to Israel for trial and eventual execution. Witness after witness, most elderly and some infirm, identified Demjanjuk as "Ivan." He was convicted and imprisoned until the Israel Supreme Court overturned the verdict because of concerns about the veracity of physical evidence. Demjanuk returned to the U.S., his citizenship restored in 1993. But it was stripped again in 2004 when a U.S. court ruled that the Justice Dept. had presented "clear, unequivocal and convincing evidence" of his service at other Nazi camps. The U.S. is prepared to deport Demjanjuk, who also is sought by German prosecutors for his alleged role in the deaths of 29,000 Jews at the Sobibor camp in Poland.

Attorneys for some of those targeted by the OSI have argued that their clients were little more than young foot soldiers, conscripts in no position to have played a role in mass killings. If he was a soldier of the lowest rank and was, to use the phrase, just following orders, should he be held to account as an old man several decades later?

Such is the case of 86-year-old Peter Egner of Bellevue, Wash., who entered the United States in 1960 and became a citizen in 1966. This past July, the Justice Department moved to revoke Egner’s citizenship, “based on evidence of his role in a Nazi unit that participated in the mass murder of more than 17,000 Serbian civilians during World War II,” mostly Jews. The complaint alleges that he served in a Nazi-controlled security service in occupied Belgrade, as part of an Einsatzgruppe, a Nazi mobile killing unit. According to captured Nazi documents, the unit killed more than 11,000 Serbian men, mostly Jews, in 1941. Then in 1942, an estimated 6,280 women and children were taken from a concentration camp and forced into a specially equipped van where they were asphyxiated with carbon monoxide gas while being transported to Avala, an execution and mass burial site near Belgrade. The complaint asserts that his citizenship should be revoked because both his Nazi service and his concealment of that service in applying for citizenship rendered him ineligible. Egner’s attorney has said his client was a young low-level member of the unit, but not involved in persecution. Egner is seeking dismissal of the government effort to deport him to what now is Serbia.

Looking ahead to a time after the last Nazi, the OSI’s mandate has been extended to include not only the Holocaust but perpetrators of other atrocities in other lands who might be living in the U.S. The most prominent example of those efforts is the recent conviction of Chuckie Taylor Jr., the son of the former President of Liberia, who was convicted of torturing his countrymen.

The survivors of the Holocaust are aging. They tell their stories to schoolchildren, religious congregations and anyone else who will listen and remember. When they are gone, so will be living testimony to the horrors at Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Treblinka and camps too numerous to list. Future generations will have the survivors’ recorded histories, along with the records kept by the Nazis, who thought history would thank them for their diligence; the investigations by the OSI and Nazi-hunters in other countries and museum exhibits about the period that set a standard for inhumanity.

But for now, what would you do about those old men?

Filed under: David Schechter • Justice Department
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Keith Ballew

    All people that commit murder, or assist in murder should pay the price for such evil.

    January 4, 2009 at 12:16 am |
  2. Brandi - bottom of the boot

    to add to my last post, i dont excuse the atrocities simply because these men were low on the totem pole and wanted to save themselves or that they were following orders.

    as humans, we have the gift of rationalization and to know right from wrong. these people made a choice, the wrong one. what is the measure of humanity? the ultimate test to that measure? is it the willingness to sacrifice yourself for what you believe in or the courage to do what you know is right?

    these men chose to do what was best for them at the time, no matter what the cost, their own survival was their motivation and this should not be rewarded.

    January 2, 2009 at 7:49 pm |
  3. Melanie -Powder Springs,GA

    Age should not matter if they committed these horrible acts of crime. they should be held accountable for what they have done.

    January 2, 2009 at 7:23 pm |
  4. jim Fallbrook

    Since they are over 80 years old and in bad health, they should be left alone. What good would it do to put them in prison when they will die soon. Let nature take its course.

    January 2, 2009 at 7:17 pm |
  5. Teresa, OH

    I say let them stay, I'm sure they were all forced to do what they did.

    January 2, 2009 at 7:11 pm |
  6. Annie Kate

    There is no statue of limitations on murder/genocide. No matter how old these men were or how young and lowly during the war they should be prosecuted and deported. The soldiers may have been young, they may have been following orders, but they also had to know that their actions were beyond the pale of decency. To not prosecute and deport these men simply because they are old debases what we as citizens of the United States say we stand for; we need to say clearly – this is not acceptable under any circumstances; we need to ensure that the 6+millilon who died at their hands have their day in court and that their killers answer for cutting their lives short.

    January 2, 2009 at 6:49 pm |
  7. Linda Goudelock

    they should pay for their crimes.

    January 2, 2009 at 6:49 pm |
  8. Brandi - bottom of the boot

    justice should be indiscriminant regarding age. i think the question should be whether or not they should be allowed to hide their pasts. i think exposing them in itself is partial justice, its at least something for the victims and their families.

    people capable of such atrocities should not be forgiven. how do you forgive someone who callously killed so many? i dont care how long ago it was.

    January 2, 2009 at 6:36 pm |
  9. Heather,ca

    I dont care how old they are or how long it has been. They are and will always be monsters. I dont care at what level their participation was. They were there and there is no denying it. The only justice is prison or death for them.

    January 2, 2009 at 6:33 pm |
  10. Tammy, Berwick. LA

    It's easy to say they should be held accountable, tried, and punished. But how many were pawns of Nazi Germany simply acting to survive during a time that defied all logical thinking? How many have lived with the guilt of their crimes for all these years, in fear of being found, simply trying to move forward in a lie while the truth ate them alive on the inside? Were all hate-filled monsters? Or were many simply young men and women doing what was asked by their nation so that they did not become known as traitors and die at the hands of their countrymen? The architects of this should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But those simply trying to make it through one of the worst periods of inhumanity have more than likely paid with every breath they have taken since that time. Guilt and self-loathing are crueler judges and executioners than any human could ever be to another. Let them die of old age. I think the years have made them pay enough for crimes they were forced to commit simply so that they might live themselves.

    January 2, 2009 at 6:20 pm |