A eulogy for John Demjanjuk
I am not here to hold a lecture on the case of John Demjanjuk, or to criticize once again the United States, Israel and Germany for the fact that they caused more than 40 years of unspeakable suffering and injustice for John, or to detail how Germany misused John and about 30 Jewish people from the Netherlands, who were victims of German cruelty during the Nazi time, for an illegal political show trial. I am simply here with the desire to say a last goodbye and farewell to John.
During the last three years of his life, while I was at his side, John Demjanjuk was the focus of my professional life as a criminal defense lawyer in Germany. But that was not all. There was so much more.
I will never forget our first meeting in the Stadelheim prison in Munich. He was sitting in a wheelchair, pushed by an officer into the visiting room of the prison, dressed in a sweater with holes and faded sweatpants. We greeted each other for the first time and spoke in English. John knew my wife, also a Pani (Mrs.) Vera like his wife, of Ukrainian descent. He asked me about my language skills in Ukrainian, an embarrassing question for me because I was always too lazy – despite nearly 40 years of marriage – to learn this difficult language. I had always followed the principle, borsht tastes delicious but is too difficult to pronounce.
Nevertheless, I passed John’s language test with an A. Namely, I could readily sing and recite the prayers of the Ukrainian Catholic liturgy since my childhood because my father loved the Eastern Church prayers and songs. He took me very often on Sundays to Mass at a Ukrainian monastery near my hometown.
I said to John, I can pray in Ukrainian but everything else “duzhe malo” (very little). He answered, “Then let us pray together, Our Father.” I said, OK fine. And so we prayed Our Father in Ukrainian. That was the beginning of our time together. We subordinated our future under the protection and will of our common creator. This was a wonderful way to start the legal battle because we knew it would take all our efforts to survive and fight against the powerful enemies, namely, revenge, retaliation, blind rage, forgery, fraud, corruption and the perversion of justice.
By the way, after passing the first language test, John never asked me to take another.
The legal battle began. It lasted nearly two years and more than 90 days in a courtroom. There was no doubt that John would be convicted as there was no doubt that the verdict was already established before the trial had even started. The media and prosecutors made John into Hitler and Stalin as one person. He, not Germany, was suddenly responsible for the German murders of hundreds of thousands of Jewish people and the destruction of European Jewry. John was made into Nazi murderer and war beast in one.
In April of 2011, John had his 91st birthday. During this time, the trial was held in the
Munich Justice Palace to give the Jewish co-plaintiffs an arena for their bizarre and hypocritical accusations against John in a historic setting. But, then something happened during a break in the hearing. John was being moved down the hall and suddenly a voice was singing Mnohaya Lita (many years) to John. It was my wife who was congratulating John on his birthday.
But the song was heard by the coplaintiffs too who had just called John a terrible henchman of Hitler a few moments ago. A storm of indignation broke out. How could somebody dare to wish and sing that the devil, the worst villain of all villains, should have a long and happy life? Such a beast cannot have a birthday. Such a villain should hang from the gallows and not earn health and many years. The press reported the scandal with big headlines. The president of the District Court warned me and announced that he would ban my wife from the courthouse if she attempted to do such a thing again.
My wife had somehow taken care of John as much as was possible under his circumstances of being incarcerated. With her natural and special Ukrainian humor and laughter, she managed to sometimes turn him away from his pain and grief. If Pani Vera spoke to him or held his hand, you could see a smile in his eyes.
The birthday song and the furious reaction of the co-plaintiffs to this simple gesture of humanity had an effect. For us, John was definitely no longer just a client, he had become in some way part of our family. We liked him and felt responsible for him. When he was feeling alright, we felt alright. And when he became a free man on May 12, 2011 upon his release from prison, we were simply happy. Somehow he was always with us, even though he lived hundreds of miles away in a nursing home.
I have said these words because they illustrate something very special. John Demjanjuk was a wonderful person, a gentle man, a fine old gentleman. The longer you knew him, you simply came to love him. He made our time together rich and precious. John’s fate shows us that the apocalypse of the Holocaust can happen easily again when hate, revenge and retaliation are the motivating forces of human action. Peace between people and nations can only be achieved through affection, brotherhood, fairness, love and understanding.
John, you have enriched our lives. We will never forget you. Goodbye John. May the Lord shine His eternal light upon John and give him eternal rest in peace. Vichnaya Pamyat!
Ulrich Busch was defense attorney in Germany for John Demjanjuk, who died on March 17 while appealing his conviction for being an accessory to the murder of 28,000 Jews as a camp guard in Sobibor, Poland, during the Nazi occupation and Holocaust.