A German court convicted John Demjanjuk on Thursday for his role in the killing of 28,000 Jews in the Sobibor Nazi death camp, then set the 91-year-old free because of his age.
Holocaust survivors at first welcomed the Munich court’s verdict that Demjanjuk, who was exonerated in another war crimes case in Israel two decades ago, was an accessory to mass murder as a guard at Sobibor camp in Poland during World War II.
But they then expressed dismay at Judge Ralph Alt’s decision to free Demjanjuk despite handing down a five-year sentence.
“At the end he threw everyone in the courtroom a curveball and destroyed the hopes of the survivors of Sobibor,” said Martin Mendelsohn, counsel for the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center and the lawyer of two co-plaintiffs in the case.
Demjanjuk showed no reaction while the judge read out his verdict. It said guards played a key role at extermination camps like Sobibor, where at least 250,000 Jews are thought to have been killed despite only 20 German SS officers being there.
“He knew from the beginning exactly what was going on in the camp,” Alt said.
However, he said that since Demjanjuk had already been imprisoned on remand for two years, more time in jail seemed inappropriate at his age.
A court statement cited two other reasons: Demjanjuk had already spent eight years in prison in Israel and the crime was 68 years old.
Demjanjuk was initially sentenced to death two decades ago in Israel for being the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” camp guard at Treblinka in Poland. The guilty verdict was overturned on appeal by Israel’s Supreme Court in 1993 after new evidence emerged pointing to a case of mistaken identity.