Is Demjanjuk too old for prison?


Ninety-one year-old John Demjanjuk received a five-year prison sentence, then released by the judge because of his age. Demjanjuk was convicted for his participation in a Nazi death camp. From March to September 1943, he served as a guard in Sobibor, during which time nearly 30,000 people were exterminated.

Demjanjuk served in the Red army when he was captured and sent to a POW camp. There he was recruited by the Germans and trained by the SS to serve as a guard in the concentration camp.

From the end of WWII until 2009, Demjanjuk had been living in the US, when he was extradited to Germany. Throughout most of the trial, Demjanjuk sat in a wheelchair, and several times the trial needed to be postponed because of his failing health. After the verdict was read, he was carried out of the courtroom on a stretcher.

This trial raises important moral questions, two of which are: is justice delayed for such a long time really justice; and should compassion overrule justice when the accused is elderly and ill?

In a sense, the Demjanjuk of today isn’t the same as the Demjanjuk of sixty years ago. Understandably actions by young people may be regrettable when viewed retrospectively by that person. It is difficult to resist social pressure, especially when young, and not to make terrible choices as trade-offs for one’s own safety, as may have been the case with some who participated in the Holocaust. People mature and realize terrible mistakes they made in the past and they gain the courage of their convictions as they get older.

But none of these factors mean that a person shouldn’t be held accountable for murderous deeds done more than a half-century ago. Some crimes are so horrific that there can be no forgiving. There can be no justice without a trial. Demjanjuk never said a word in his defense, only that he himself was a victim of being hounded by Americans, then Germans. His lawyer continues to maintain his innocence and plans to appeal. Lacking contrition on Demjanjuk’s part and his continued obduracy, society rightly held him accountable. He gives no indication why mitigating circumstances may have played a part in his actions. He simply presents a sullen, silent insistence on his innocence.

Now having been found guilty in a court of law, should compassion override justice? Rather than sentencing him to prison time, should he be released on compassionate grounds? I don’t think so, mainly because there is no indication that Demjanjuk regrets what he has done.

We are torn between justice and compassion when we see that the guilty person accepts responsibility and is repentant. In that situation, while our sense of fairness wants to see the guilty behind bars, our sense of compassion, on the contrary, wants to recognize and honor the change of heart and the potential for moral growth on the part of the guilty.

“For us the important thing is that he got convicted,” World Jewish Congress spokesman Michael Thaidigsmann said. “It’s not up to an organization like us to say whether he should be in jail or not.”

I don’t share WJC’s reluctance in stating whether Demjanjuk should be in jail. I think the judge was wrong in releasing Demjanjuk because of his age. Jailing Demjanjuk isn’t revenge and it certainly is the hope for rehabilitation. It is that society has a right to punish wrongdoers when the wrong-doing is momentous and the guilty person defiant.

It seems to me that the Demjanjuk in the court yesterday was the same man who was an accessory in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people. It isn’t the younger, long-gone person who should be jail but the very same person who committed the crimes.

In this instance, it doesn’t matter than it happened more than a half-century ago and it doesn’t matter that Demjanjuk is nearly a century old.

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One thought on “Is Demjanjuk too old for prison?

  1. Thought-provoking post!! I very much in agreement that time elapsed since the crime and age should not figure prominently into decisions about punishment of adults. You suggest that remorse/ change might be grounds for compassion in sentencing–isn’t this unfair, though, as rarely is compassion based on a change of heart considered for those who are caught at the time of their crime during their prime years?

    What struck me as the really sticky moral problem with this case was that the Court emphasized that Demjanjuk had a moral obligation to try to escape during his capture by the Nazis because he knew of the terrible thing that he might be forced to participate in, and that his chance of death was low if he indeed had tried to escape. I certainly don’t sympathize with Demjanjuk or think of him as a heroic Schindler-type! but it seems that accusing him of not trying to escape because his probability of surviving was more than, say, 50% places an almost superhuman moral demand upon him and anyone else to sacrifice their lives. Should such standards be used for judgment of crimes committed in a time of war? Israel, for instanced, tried a Jewish Kapo in the 1960s…

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