(This post is rough going, but I spat it out in a hurry and I don't feel like editing it. It's a sordid saga. Pat Buchanan, of all people, is the one of the few making any sense on the matter. What is the world coming to?)
Why am I upset about the deportation (now on hold again) of John Demjanjuk? Besides, of course, the sight of the banal evil of US immigration misdirecting its forces and public funds yet again -- seeing an 89-year-old who is quite possibly an innocent man ripped out of his bed by the State and wheeled to an airplane to be deported to Germany, where interest in trying him is lukewarm at best. Cui bono?
The main reason I'm upset because there is a hollow feeling of evil prevailing beyond the grave, far into the 21st century, that Hitler and Stalin are having a great laugh right now. Yes, Hitler and Stalin. Because there is nothing either of these dictators would like better than to pawn their crimes off on "beta" drones, Cossacks, subordinates, refugees. If there was a way to just blame the Jews and be done with it, they would jump at the chance.
The (very indirect) personal content is that like Demjanjuk, my grandfather was ethnically Ukrainian. He was older, better educated (and he was an Estonian citizen) but it could have been he, I always thought, back when Demjanjuk's legal troubles began. All we knew was that all of a sudden, lists of people had been drawn up, of people who were suspected war criminals. The lists were managed by the Department of Justice and yet they were largely seeded by the Soviets. Could someone like him be next? It didn't seem impossible. Hadn't he worked for Siemens before the war? The impression was that he had been all over central Europe in 1945 as the fronts closed around him and my grandmother. What if he hadn't accounted for a "resume gap" on his US immigration application? What if he had pissed off someone in the communist regime in 1940?
He died ten years ago to the day. One of the things that I regret was never really interviewing him. Sadly I am left with an increasingly simplistic memory of him as a staunch anticommunist, an Estonian patriot, a good grandfather, an amazingly handy person who built a working automobile from spare parts in occupied Germany, and many views that could be classified as politically incorrect/less than pluralistic, but above all a stoic calm.
What was the chance that this man, any man in World War II, had seen things that it was better to keep quiet about? I'm not even going to dignify that with an answer. There is a great quotation, which happens to be from a Soviet officer in Afghanistan, who was asked by a journalist to qualify how exactly war was hell or something, and the brunt of the answer was that you would have to be insane to even try to describe it. For a common man (as opposed to, say, an enamelware industrialist), manoeuvring without any traction, the morality is even more complicated.
There were two types of "quiet neighbours" in the US. One is of course the Eastern European the epithet was invented for -- the vast minority, the people with something evil in their past to hide. And then there are the other quiet neighbours, whose reputation was unfairly besmirched forever by the insinuation. These were people who did what they could to survive the war and its aftermath, some already with children, who came to the West, tried to make something of themselves.
They were a thorn in the side of the Soviet regime merely because they existed, because they weren't members of the elite and yet in this way they attested to the superiority of the capitalist way (at least in that era).
The Soviet Union never passed up a chance to make their life difficult in return. Remember, for all its military might, this was a small-minded regime that would not allow people to leave, that was aware early on that it was an economic fraud.
It is unfortunate that long after the admitted injustices of such episodes as Operation Keelhaul, they found a willing partner in the US Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations. Very real and justified outrage -- over the fact that so many high-level Nazis had managed to escape to places like South America and reinvent themselves -- was twisted maliciously and exploited.
Whatever Demjanjuk's role, this wasn't how it was supposed to turn out. It's not even some kind of atavistic eye-for-an-eye justice. I could almost understand and cheer, if a Holocaust survivor came knocking, like De Niro in Corleone, Sicily, to spoil some old nemesis's dotage.
Instead, now at the end of the road, with no one else left to prosecute, we have another 89-year-old (they're almost always 88 or 89), he's already been convicted and the conviction dismissed by the Supreme Court of Israel, and now faces some other charge. In the end he will be held for silver candlesticks. There's nothing to celebrate here but the blind unfeeling machinery that makes this sort of thing possible -- of the justice system, of modern medicine that makes it possible to continue to try and re-try a ghost for the same crime... And finally, it's anything but closure.