In Esquire's November 2009 issue, Scott Raab wrote the definitive profile of John Demjanuk, a man who faces trial as an accessory to 27,900 Nazi murders. As his trial begins today, read on for his story; it's one that explains the complications of finding justice when it comes to the Holocaust. (To read even more features from Esquire, go here.)
Were we not speaking of the Holocaust - Shoah, the Greatest Crime Ever Perpetrated, a Darkness Inexplicable, Pure Evil Incarnate - it would be funny. (Go here to read all of our Funny Jokes from Beautiful Women.)
Because it is the Holocaust, however, it is hilarious: No greater monster left alive, John Demjanjuk sits where Hitler once sat - in a cell in Munich's Stadelheim prison - waiting for his lunch, and for justice to be done to him again.
Again. As the dwindling few real-life Nazis march day by day to hell, as their numbers shrink and our remembrance fades, the faceless face on atrocity's Most Wanted poster is again - again - this recycled Ukrainian peasant, now eighty-nine years old.
Lunch eventually will come. As for justice, who knows when or what that will be. Justice took its time last time, seven years in all, dawdling till the gallows were built; Demjanjuk heard the work crew daily, hammering the planks. But there, at least - in, of all places, Israel - his jailers brought fresh vegetables, and tins of mystery meat, and let him thrust his thick arms through the bars of his cell and fix himself supper on a hot plate.
From those Jews - after he was found guilty of being one of two men who ran the gas chambers at Treblinka, where nearly a million Jews were killed - from them, he got a civilized evening meal. (To read about Holocaust deniers, click here.)
From these Germans - who have now charged him with being a mere accessory to the murder of a mere 27,900 Jews at Sobibor, a different extermination camp - what does he get for dinner?
Here, presumed innocent, he gets bread and cheese at 3:00 P.M., and so to bed.
Historians generally agree that World War II claimed roughly sixty million lives, including roughly forty million civilians, roughly six million of whom were Jews butchered by the Nazis. Roughly.
For Jews, the wound inflicted by the Nazis will never heal. Our number is too small: Six million was two thirds of all the Jews alive in Europe then, half of all the Jews alive in all the world today.
Their loss was - is - irretrievable.
Funny thing, though: This story is not about the Jews. This story is larger than that.
This story is about truth, justice, and John Demjanjuk.
Who was a Ukrainian farm boy and a Red Army conscript.
Who survived famine and war.
Who took a boat from Germany and landed in America in 1952.
Who lived in Cleveland quietly for twenty-five more years.
Who first came to the attention of American Nazi hunters in the mid-1970s.
Who was stripped of citizenship and shipped to Israel to face his accusers - brought to justice onstage in a concert hall converted into a courtroom for a yearlong trial broadcast on Israeli television and radio, meant to remind the younger Jews never to forget the evil done to them - and heard the survivors, in simultaneous translation, identify him across all the years and miles as the Ukrainian savage so bloodthirsty, so unforgettably depraved - with a whip or a sword or a drill, it was his pleasure to maim Jews only a few moments away from being gassed - that inmates called him Ivan Grozny: Ivan the Terrible.
Who has spent thirty-three years now insisting he had nothing - nothing - to do with the Holocaust: that he was never a Nazi death-camp guard; that he was simply and only a Red Army prisoner of war enslaved by the Nazis as a farm laborer; that he is a victim of mistaken identity, of a Communist plot hatched by the KGB; that he would not, could not, hurt a rabbit, much less a fellow human.
Who was put on a plane in May and carried back to Germany to face his accusers, again, placed under arrest in Munich by - funny thing - the righteous progeny of Hitler-loving burghers who did nothing as Jewry burned.
Who sits in jail gnawing German bread and cheese, awaiting truth and justice.To read the rest of the story and find out what may happen to Demjanjuk, click here.