John Demjanjuk is not an isolated case. German investigators have set their sights on other presumed Nazi war criminals, raising the question of how the law should deal with the aged accessories of the Holocaust.
When he had completed the job, SS Colonel Karl Jäger, filled with pride, wrote in his report to his superiors: "Today, I am proud to report that the objective of solving the Jewish problem for Lithuania has been achieved by Task Force 3. There are no longer any Jews in Lithuania ..."
It was Dec. 1, 1941, and German troops had occupied Lithuania, which was part of the Soviet Union, since the summer. According to Colonel Jäger's meticulous account, his subordinates had killed exactly 47,326 men, 55,556 women and 34,464 children.
But Jäger did not claim all the credit for himself and the 120 men he commanded. He was only able to achieve his goal, the ardent Hitler supporter wrote, because one of his subordinates had managed to "secure the cooperation of the Lithuanian partisans."
The "partisans" Jäger referred to were anti-communist militia units that had once fought against the Soviet occupation and had now become the willing helpers of their new, German masters. One such incident of voluntary collaboration took place on August 15 and 16, 1941, in Rokiskis, a town in northeastern Lithuania, where 80 Lithuanians rounded up Jews, brought them to an execution site and helped lock up the victims. Twenty of the Lithuanian volunteers joined Jäger's men in shooting them dead.
Rokiskis was only one of many such places. The Holocaust was a crime ordered and committed by Germans, but without the help of Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians, ethnic Germans living in Eastern Europe (known as "Volksdeutsche") and other Eastern Europeans, the death toll would not have been as high. Historians estimate the number of non-German "killing workers" (a term coined by German writer Ralph Giordano) at about 200,000. There is probably no other group of criminals that has proven more difficult to prosecute than the Nazis' non-German helpers and accomplices. Until today, that is.
Names rarely appear in archives, and many of the murderers managed to disappear in the confusion of postwar Europe or emigrated abroad. And because they were at the end of the chain of command, they were able to argue more credibly than many former members of the SS that they had no other choice, at least until someone could prove them wrong. Not all non-Germans participated in the Holocaust voluntarily the way Jäger's "partisans" did. Some in the Wehrmacht's POW camps signed up to work for the SS simply because they would otherwise have faced death by starvation.
Under these circumstances, it comes as no surprise that it has taken German prosecutors so long to turn their attention to these suspects. In mid-March, a court in Munich issued a warrant for the arrest of John ("Ivan") Demjanjuk, an 89-year-old Ukrainian-American living in Cleveland, Ohio, who is accused of being an accessory to at least 29,000 murders. Demjanjuk is believed to have worked as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp. A US court temporarily blocked Demjanjuk's deportation, arguing that he is too frail to travel and stand trial in Germany. But German authorities expect him to be flown to Germany shortly after a US immigration appeals board ruled that he could be deported.