In February 1987, I used to be sitting in a Jerusalem courtroom, listening to probably the most harrowing testimony possible from survivors of the Nazi dying camp at Treblinka, in Poland, the place an estimated 700,000-900,000 folks had been murdered in 1942-43.
The survivors, aged and frail, had been giving proof within the trial of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-American alleged to have been a infamous camp guard often called “Ivan the Horrible”. He was the one, they mentioned, who operated the engines that pumped the fuel into the fuel chambers.
However they had been flawed. Reminiscences can mislead, and Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Horrible. Paperwork uncovered in Soviet archives after his trial established that he was virtually definitely a guard at one other Nazi extermination camp, Sobibor in Poland, the place a mere 170,000-250,000 folks had been murdered. Demjanjuk, who had been convicted, then acquitted, in Israel, was convicted once more at a second trial, this time in Germany, of being an adjunct to the homicide of 28,060 folks at Sobibor.
He died lower than a yr later, aged 91, earlier than his attraction may very well be heard.
The challenges confronted by prosecutors within the Demjanjuk case assist to elucidate why in Britain just one alleged Nazi battle felony was ever prosecuted and convicted. Andrei Sawoniuk, a Belarusian Nazi police auxiliary, was convicted on the Outdated Bailey in 1999 on two specimen expenses of homicide and sentenced to life imprisonment. (He died in Norwich jail in 2005.)
Historical historical past? Not in the event you’re the speaker of the Canadian home of commons, Anthony Rota, who has simply been compelled to resign after arranging a standing ovation for a 98-year-old alleged Ukrainian Nazi battle felony, Yaroslav Hunka, on the event of an official go to by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. (Rota mentioned he had recognized nothing of the allegations regarding Hunka.) And never in the event you’re a battle crimes investigator working to assemble proof regarding atrocities in Ukraine and Syria within the hope of bringing at the least a few of these accountable to justice. Because the Demjanjuk case proved, identification proof alone isn’t sufficient. You want paperwork, pictures and forensic scene-of-crime proof to assist construct a case that may persuade a jury past cheap doubt.
In line with a brand new guide analyzing the UK’s report of investigating the estimated 400 Nazi collaborators who fled to Britain on the finish of the Second World Struggle, even after the passing of the Struggle Crimes Act in 1991, authorities attorneys had been nonetheless closely influenced by the Demjanjuk case. The guide, Secure Haven, by Jon Silverman and Robert Sherwood, quotes a senior Treasury counsel, Sir John Nutting: “One factor which was completely clear to us proper from the beginning was that we might not proceed with a case which relied on identification.”
Because the Observer has highlighted in current weeks, the UK nonetheless has unfinished enterprise regarding Nazi battle crimes. On the Channel Island of Alderney, occupied by the Nazis for 5 years after they invaded in June 1940, the reality of how many individuals died in Nazi slave labour camps on the island has but to be established, after allegations that British officers intentionally lined up the dimensions of the atrocities dedicated. A authorities inquiry has now been arrange, below the previous Conservative minister Eric Pickles, to look at the proof.
It’s almost 80 years because the finish of the Second World Struggle. There will probably be no extra trials of alleged Nazi battle criminals however historians and researchers imagine that there are nonetheless necessary classes to be discovered about how the regulation can finest be used to convey different battle criminals to justice.
It’s too late for these like my grandmother, Ilse Cohn, who was murdered in Lithuania in November 1941 by a Nazi dying squad below the command of the SS colonel Karl Jäger. He was considered one of a number of hundred thousand women and men who had been by no means prosecuted for the roles they performed throughout the Holocaust. (He was lastly arrested in 1959 however killed himself in custody earlier than he may very well be delivered to trial.)
Additionally it is too late for the descendants of all of the victims of Harijs Svikeris, a senior officer within the Latvian auxiliary safety police, who settled in Milton Keynes after the battle and was by no means prosecuted.
Or for the victims of Anton Gecas, a former Lithuanian police auxiliary who settled in Edinburgh within the Nineteen Forties and about whom the previous procurator fiscal Gavin Ruxton, quoted in Secure Haven, has mentioned: “I’ve little doubt that… Anton Gecas is a battle felony however I’m afraid that I’m equally satisfied that we can not show a related cost in opposition to him in a felony court docket. Whereas it might be attainable to determine his wartime actions to the satisfaction of historians… there may be, in my opinion, too nice a gulf between what we all know and what we will show for any prosecution to succeed.”
Discovering a option to bridge that gulf is the problem that now confronts all battle crimes investigators and attorneys.
Robin Lustig is a former presenter of The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 and Newshour on BBC World Service
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