Why Only Demjanjuk?

Here’s something else that you may have forgotten about – the Demjanjuk trial, still ongoing in Munich, Germany. John Demjanjuk is alleged to be “Ivan the Terrible,” the brutal guard and gas-chamber operator at the Nazi death camp at Sobibor, and was finally extradited from the US to Germany last May for trial, to face a mere 27,900 counts of acting as an accessory to murder.

Fine, so they finally have him on trial in Germany. (After he had already stood trial in Israel in 1986, it must be admitted – he was found guilty, sentenced to death by hanging, but then his conviction was overturned on appeal by the Israeli Supreme Court because of new evidence that had surfaced that cast doubt on Demjanjuk’s wartime identity.) Let’s just let things proceed from there, and expeditiously: by now, the most urgent consideration is probably to actually complete the trial before the 90-year-old Demjanjuk finally dies.

Right, but among the witnesses at his new trial will presumably be one Samuel Kunz, also said to be a death-camp guard in the service of the SS during the war, but who spent most of his time at Bełżec. Wait: what is this Kunz fellow doing otherwise enjoying his retirement in perfect freedom (residing near Bonn, as it turns out, and subsisting on a civil servant’s pension)? That’s what a number of still-living death-camp escapees want to know, and it’s also the question that Gazeta Wyborcza Berlin correspondent Bartosz T. Wieliński poses in his article Why are the Germans putting on trial only Demjanjuk (topped by a charming wartime picture of Kunz and his death-camp colleagues posing at Bełżec under a double-lightning SS symbol; you should click just to check that out, Kunz is holding the mandolin).

Yes, Wieliński definitely wants to know, and he’s been trained in the aggressive school of post-Communist Polish journalism. There’s only one “Kunz” in the phonebook for the town where Wieliński knows that he lives, so he gives him a call. Kunz answers, and is willing to acknowledge that he served as a guard at Bełżec. So Wieliński follows up (the language indicates he used the polite “Sie” German form of address): “Were you killing Jews there?” “I have nothing to answer for,” Kunz replies, and hangs up.

OK, so little enlightenment could be expected from that direct channel, although it clearly was worth a try. But the uncanny parallelism in what we know of the lives of Demjanjuk and Kunz really has to make you wonder. Both initially fought against the Wehrmacht in the Russian Army, but were captured. Both then agreed to/were forced to (depending on whom you ask) work for the SS, attending first the “How to be an SS worker” training-camp at Trawniki. But Demjanjuk went to Sobibor (although he also served elsewhere, including at the Treblinka death-camp), while Kunz worked mainly at Bełżec. And then, as the war careened to a close in a disastrous German defeat, both men headed West – a good idea, since the advancing Red Army was simply executing any SS-workers that fell into its hands. But while Demjanjuk eventually made his way to the US in 1952, Kunz settled in what was to become West Germany, and even eventually managed to get himself a civil service job in the Ministry of Architecture. (That’s the translation of what Wieliński gives in the article: ministerstwo budownictwa. A little Wikipedia research suggests that he means the Ministry of Construction, now based again in Berlin with a slightly-expanded name.)

In addition to his comfy job, though, Kunz had a sideline, one he was uniquely qualified to fulfill – as an available witness for war crimes trials, naturally, as they cropped up in Germany through the 1950s and 1960s. The highlight of these probably was the one in 1963, when eight former SS officers were put on trial. (Only one was convicted, the rest cleared for lack of evidence.) Strangely, it seems no one considered whether that witness – because of the expertise he had on SS war crimes based on how he had spent the war – might need to be called up to the stand as an accused himself. (Granted, it’s likely the legal authorities were dependent on the testimony he could give to nail guilty parties higher up in the Nazi hierarchy.) Until last year, that is, when the German press started to smell something funny about his case and write about it, and (probably not coincidentally) when the prosecutor’s office in Dortmund opened an investigation.

So Why Isn’t He in the Dock, Already?

So what’s happening with that? One death-camp escapee, Aron Krochmalnik, called to inquire why Kunz hadn’t been arrested yet, and was reminded that the man is getting rather old. So he wrote to the federal Ministry of Justice to voice his concerns. The word from there is that Kunz will be put on trial some time later this year.

Time will tell if that ever actually happens. In the meantime, Krochmalnik is going ahead with a private suite against Kunz. But any explanation for the rather different treatment he has received (so far) when compared to John Demjanjuk is still lacking. Some say – and the clever among you will already have notice this just from their last names – that that’s because Kunz was actually volksdeutsch, i.e. originally a Russian citizen but of German ethnic heritage, which also explains why he easily got West German citizenship (and even a job with the German federal government) after the war while Demjanjuk presumably would have had a bit more trouble with that. More insidiously, this might also indicate that the prosecuting authorities are now more inclined to move against foreigners who are alleged to have committed war-crimes on German soil, rather than Germans.

On the other hand – and Wieliński does present this possibility fully – the key difference might be that, for Kunz and unlike Demjanjuk, there are no eye-witness accounts of his crimes, nor writings accusing him from victims/escapees. To be sure, at another war-crimes trial in Austria there was testimony that certainly all SS workers at Bełżec were involved in the killing, without exception. (Unlike Auschwitz, camps like Treblinka/Sobibor/Bełżec were set up to do nothing else, and were completely dismantled as the Red Army approached.) But Kunz steadfastly denies doing any killing, even as he admits he was at Bełżec and present while it was done. The bottom line: He might be innocent of the accusations, in a twisted, legalistic way which nonetheless still leaves the shadow of a doubt. And that shadow, let us remember, was precisely what allowed John Demjanjuk to escape the hangman in Israel.

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