The legacy of the Nazi show trials

Nick Reed, Scarlet Staff

*Trigger Warning: Violence/Sexual Assault*


Jewish Heritage Month is unfortunately drawing to a close! I’ve been consumed this month by finals, and it’s been hard to celebrate that heritage with what’s going on in the world. With that in mind, I thought I’d take the chance to tell you a quick story.

I debated about what to write for a while. It’s important for me that people know the Jewish people should not be reduced to a monolith of suffering. We are more than the pain we have survived. 

It is, however, also important for me that we acknowledge our own ugly past; in many ways our legacy is pain. If you haven’t picked up on it already this story starts with the Holocaust. 

The world was shocked when the news broke r of what had happened in the isolated forests of Poland during World War II. 

Around 10 million people had been murdered in an industrial, factory style killing machine. Six million of them were Jews. Men were usually kept alive longer to work in forced labor camps, while women and children were killed immediately. The camps were festering pits of sexual assault, torture, and human experimentation.

Millions were murdered in mass shootings (often referred to as the Holocaust by Bullets) or were worked to death in labor camps. The most horrible method, however, is the one we all know: the Death Camps. 

This is where our story begins – the horrible, evil little world of Treblinka death camp. Victims would step off the trains and enter the camps, and be dead in mere hours. 850,000 Jews met their end there.

There were few survivors.

If you entered Treblinka, you were either a Nazi, or you were going to be executed. The only eyewitnesses to the atrocities were the 77 Jews that managed to escape during a riot.

Those who escaped were beyond traumatized. They had seen the worst, most depraved end of humanity. When the war ended, many of the survivors who came to settle in Israel were met with contempt. The Israelis that had settled there before the war viewed them as weak. 

This was part of the character of the Israeli national ethos; the hard, strong pioneer: a soldier, a warrior, the inheritors of the Maccabees. The survivors represented everything these people had fought so hard to distance themselves from: the Jewish victim. In the years after the war, the Soviet Union began to release documents of Nazi war criminals who were settled in the United States. Photos were shown to survivors and many of them recognized one face with terror; that of the notorious Ivan the Terrible, the man who operated the gas chambers at Treblinka. 

This man they recognized was John Demjanjuk, a Ukranian immigrant who had since settled in Cleveland and become an upstanding member in his community. He worked hard, had a family, attended the local Ukranian church; he was the model immigrant. 

The community refused to believe he was responsible for the crimes of which he was accused. Many were blissfully ignorant, but many more knew that this set a dangerous precedant; Demjanjuk was not the only former Nazi of the American Ukranian community.

He was, however, accused of committing the most horrible crimes known to man, having ended the lives of over 850,000 innocents. The United States revoked his citizenship, and he was brought to Israel to stand trial.

Let’s take a step back and get some context here. The nation of Israel has a high concentration of Holocaust survivors. As I said earlier, they were not always treated with much empathy. There was something that changed that, however. 

First off, let me recommend “The Eichmann Show” on Netflix. It’s a good crash course on a complicated topic. 

In 1962, Mossad agents captured Adolf Eichman in Argentina (yeah, the Argintinean Nazi thing is based in reality!). Eichman was the architect of Hitler’s final solution; he was single handedly responsible for the deaths of millions. 

I’m not always sure what I believe, but the trial of Adolf Eichman showed me that karma is real. The man responsible for the eradication of ⅓ of world Jewry was now on trial in the world’s only Jewish nation. 

This was not to be a normal trial; no, this was too big of a deal to not show the world. This would be a show trial, broadcast across the globe. It was also the first time that survivors felt welcome to share their stories.

Survivor testimony was something personal and often something shameful. The majority of Israelis never heard said testimony, let alone the world at large. The Eichman trial helped change that. The testimonies were now being heard around the world; what was once private was now public, and Holocaust memory became a collective effort on behalf of the Jewish people

It began with a statement from prosecutor Gideon Hausner that has become legendary; “I do  not stand  alone.  With me  are  six  million prosecutors. But they  cannot rise to their  feet  and point an accusing finger towards him who sits in the glass-encased witness dock and cry out:  “J’accuse!.”

This trial was pivotal for Israel and the world.

A new generation was being introduced to the horrors of the Holocaust. For Israelis, what was once contempt was replaced with sympathy. Everyone heard the survivors, saw the footage. It was impossible to escape the reality of what happened. 

Eichman never showed a shred of emotion or of regret. He denied culpability, saying he was simply following orders; he was found guilty of all charges and hung. He is one of only two people to be formally executed by the State of Israel.

I asked my grandpa about it, who was in high school during the Eichman trial. He told me he remembers my Russian, Jewish, immigrant great-grandmother emphatically saying “may he burn in hell” when his sentence was handed down. A sentiment with which many seemed to agree.

The trial of Adolf Eichman was a chance for the world to be educated. Not only did a generation born after the Holocaust witness the brutality of what happened, but the survivors received a small modicum of justice. To many, like my great-grandmother, Eichman was the personification of the evil that had let the Holocaust happen. 

Demjanjuk’s trial came in 1985; it was the last chance for many survivors to share their stories, and the last chance they had to find justice. Again, Israel and the world prepared for a show trial, many gearing up for the chance to share the horrors of the 

holocaust with another new generation. 

The trial, however, would be a convoluted mess. This chaos partly emerged due to the Cold War; with the information of Demjanjuk’s crimes coming from Russian sources, Americans were hesitant to trust this newfound knowledge – as a result of this conflict, Demjanjuk became a martyr for these American interests. This distrust was not unfounded: while the information provided was accurate, the release of this information was intended to split anti-communist groups in the United States by pitting Ukraninas against Jews.


Demajuk insisted on a case of mistaken identity. His lawyers believed him wholeheartedly (one was an American, the other an Israeli, both just awful, awful men). They claimed evidence was faked by the Soviets, and that the testimony of the survivors was unreliable. 


The thing is, again, they weren’t all wrong. 

The survivors were aging; many of them had trouble with details. The whole trial more or less hinged on the testimony of the survivors. If they were unreliable, so were the accusations.

Three men spoke, all survivors of Treblinka, all insisting that they recognized Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible, the man who enjoyed torturing his victims with a sword on the path to the gas chambers. The victims broke down in tears, recalling watching their loved ones die before them. 

Demjanjuk’s defense refused to believe their testimony, insisting the old men were “senile” or misremebring. The anguish on their faces as they pointed Demjanjuk out is unmistakable. You don’t forget the face of a monster like him.

The problem was, there was little proof other than survivor testimony. At first, this sounds suspicious. It is however, important to point out that the Nazis were the only witnesses to their crimes in the death camps, and they burned much of the physical evidence. 

The evidence for Demjanjuk being Ivan the Terrible; an SS ID card, and the survivors testimony. Evidence against; he said that’s not him!

Demjanjuk even admitted himself that he had an SS blood type tattoo; meaning that despite his prisoner of war sob story, he accidentally admitted he voluntarily joined the SS. No one forced him; he made the choice indepently. 

Despite proof of SS membership, witness testimony seeing him at Treblinka and Sobibor, and even him admitting to living in a town in Poland called Sobibor during the war, there was significant doubt about Demjanjuk’s guilt. After all, you  don’t want to have the wrong man put to death.

Although he was found guilty and originally sentenced to death by hanging, the doubts remained. His sentence was appealed, and he was released back to the United States. 

The OSI kept investigating, though. The evidence was there; even if he was not Ivan the Terrible, he was definitely in the SS, and was definitely a camp guard. He was extradited to Germany this time, and eventually found guilty. He died awaiting his appeal, making him technically innocent under German law. 

This story is painful, and there’s no happy ending. In fact, no part of it is happy. The survivors didn’t get justice, and the world refused to believe them. Again.

The Nazis used to tell people something when they got off the trains and walked through the gates of their camps: “Even if you survive, no one will believe you”. For the first time, the Nazis were right. 

For years, survivors were belittled, ignored and even when the world turned to look at them, they were not believed. The testimony of Soviet POWS executed seconds after being interrogated was more valuable than the living survivors. 

There is one positive outcome to the trial of John Demjanjuk. The world had to relive the Holocaust again. Thousands of people, many for the first time, had to hear the testimonies and see the evidence of the worst crime the world has ever seen. 

There’s two lessons here. Number 1:  the only way this never happens again, and the only way to keep people from denying the Holocaust is to continue to discuss it. Number 2: if it ever happens again, we must be ready to support and listen to the voices of those who witnessed it first hand. 

The pain of the Jewish people permeates every inch of the story of this trial. The pain didn’t go away, and it never will, not even when the last survivor dies. 

Today, all that remains of Treblinka is the foundation, the evidence burned long ago to keep the approaching Soviets from discovering anything. Some consider it to be the world’s largest Jewish graveyard; the ashes of 850,000 innocent men, women and children lying beneath the earth. 

The Holocaust can never happen again, and it is our duty to make sure that doesn’t happen. As painful as it is, we must remember the evil that can exist in the world. There are millions like Eichman and Demjanjuk that never even saw a trial, that faded into obscurity. They may even still be alive.

The world failed the Jews by letting it happen. They failed them again by letting their killers get away, and again with the years of shame that followed the Holocaust. We can not fail them again by refusing to share their story.