If relatives of convicted Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk get what they want, their patriarch will be buried in the US – a prospect not sitting well with Jewish advocates who argue the retired autoworker could, in death, become a magnet for neo-Nazis.
Demjanjuk died Saturday in Germany at age 91, and his family in Ohio wants to return his body for burial. Even though his US citizenship had been revoked and he was deported, there is no prohibition against returning the body to this country, the US attorney's office in Cleveland said.
Munich state court spokeswoman Margarete Noetzel said that under German law, because Demjanjuk died before his final appeal could be heard and because a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, he is still technically presumed innocent.
But that doesn't mean the conviction is somehow wiped from the record, she said. "The verdict exists. It is not voided. It was pronounced and based in fact."
A Demjanjuk funeral in his adopted hometown would turn into a spectacle, said Efraim Zuroff, who leads the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem.
"I have no doubt that a funeral in Seven Hills would turn into a demonstration of solidarity and support for Demjanjuk, who's the last person on earth who deserves any sympathy, frankly," Zuroff said in a telephone interview.
Demjanjuk had guarded his privacy carefully, posting a "no trespassing" sign outside his house and turning aside interview requests over the decades.
His attorney appealed Monday to German authorities to arrange for his body to be sent home to Ohio, and son John Demjanjuk Jr. confirmed that, but there was no word on any arrangements or whether a funeral might be done in secret.
Demjanjuk Jr. said in an email Tuesday that any suggestion of his father's burial or grave site turning into a spectacle was unwarranted.
"Over the past 35 plus years our family has had NO association with any part of the neo-Nazi groups, ever. We have condemned Nazi crimes as my father is himself a victim of the Nazis regardless of whose version of the case you believe," he said.
Demjanjuk's attorney, Ulrich Busch, said in an email Monday night that a focus on his client overlooked the role of Germany in war crimes.
"It is a fact that the media knows who the true murderers of Sobibor are, namely the Germans. It is not understandable why the media keeps silent about them and their non-conviction," he said.
The Ukraine-born Demjanjuk was a retired US autoworker who maintained over three decades of legal battles that he had been mistaken for someone else.
He came to the US on Feb. 9, 1952, claiming to have spent much of World War II in a German prisoner of war camp. He eventually settled in a middle-class Cleveland suburb and worked as a mechanic at a Ford Motor Co. engine plant.
That idyll ended in 1977, when the Justice Department alleged that he had hid his past as the feared Treblinka death camp guard "Ivan the Terrible" and revoked his citizenship. The Israeli Supreme Court returned him to the US after it received evidence that another Ukrainian, not Demjanjuk, was Ivan the Terrible.
Eventually, after many legal twists and turns, Demjanjuk was convicted in May of 28,060 counts of being an accessory to murder at the Sobibor death camp in occupied Poland and sentenced to five years in prison. He died in a nursing home while awaiting appeal.
'Demjanjuk is no Hitler'
A US burial site for Demjanjuk could become a shrine for neo-Nazis in the US because they will never forget he was once misidentified as Ivan the Terrible, said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, noting that there are about 170 active neo-Nazi groups in the US.
"For neo-Nazis, I think it's entirely possible that a Demjanjuk grave becomes a monument to the alleged evils of the Jews," Potok said.
In Germany, the bones of Rudolf Hess, a deputy to Adolf Hitler, were exhumed under cover of darkness, burned and secretly scattered at sea after his grave became a shrine for thousands of neo-Nazis.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Demjanjuk didn't have the stature that would attract adoring neo-Nazis to his grave.
"He's not an Adolf Hitler," Hier said.
Any hometown burial arrangements likely would be at Demjanjuk's longtime church, St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral. Parishioners and the wider Ukrainian-American community had been a protective cocoon of support for Demjanjuk for decades.
Finding cemetery could be difficult
The church signaled Sunday that it was holding out hope his name might be cleared. Just as Demjanjuk's conviction as Ivan the Terrible had been overturned, "so, too, in time, we believe that new evidence will be uncovered once again finding him innocent of the latest accusations," the cathedral said in a statement.
The US Department of Justice, whose Nazi-hunting office directed the pursuit of Demjanjuk in the US, declined to comment Monday on the burial issue.
A US State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said the US Consulate General in Munich "is providing consular assistance to Mr. Demjanjuk's family in the United States." There was no elaboration, but such help could include repatriation of remains.
Hier said it might be hard to find a cemetery that would accept Demjanjuk.
"If it were me or my family, I wouldn't want to have anyone buried near a Nazi war criminal," he said. "They are a disgrace to mankind."