For Israeli Children, Demjanjuk Trial Was Not Intended Lesson With AM-Israel-Demjanjuk, Bjt
Jul. 30, 1993
JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israelis voiced concern Friday that John Demjanjuk's acquittal on Nazi war crimes charges would make it even more difficult to pass on the memory of the Holocaust to the younger generation.
The trial, Israelis assumed, would bring alive the horror of the history books. But the initial reaction of children after the acquittal showed many do not identify themselves with the mass extermination of Jews during World War II.
''It was so long ago and I was never a Jew in the Diaspora. My life is so different,'' said 12-year-old Sarit Cohen, whose own grandparents survived a concentration camp.
Before Demjanjuk, Israel had only lived through one major war crimes trial. Adolf Eichmann, the mastermind of the Nazi killing machine, was hanged in 1962.
That was a moment of national catharsis.
''It was a dark family secret nobody would talk about. The Eichmann trial opened it up,'' said Tom Segev, author of ''The Seventh Million,'' which examined the links between Israel and the Holocaust.
It was supposed to happen again when John Demjanjuk went on trial in 1988, accused of being the sadistic death camp guard ''Ivan the Terrible,'' who ran the gas chambers at Treblinka death camp in Nazi-controlled Poland where 890,000 Jews died.
The trial was broadcast live on Israel television and radio. School classes wanting to sit in court had to book seats two months in advance to watch death camp survivors identify him as Ivan.
''The question of Demjanjuk himself is secondary. Everyone wants to make sure the next generation remembers,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Ehud Gol said before Demjanjuk was sentenced to hang.
After a lengthy appeal, the Supreme Court on Thursday overturned Demjanjuk's conviction, citing reasonable doubt. Although the court found convincing proof that Demjanjuk was a member of the Nazi extermination machine in other camps, it stopped short of conviction, and said he could go free.
Holocaust survivors reeled. Already worried that the history is lost on the young, they thought the decision tantamount to erasing their own memories.
''I fear deeply in my heart that the next generation will forget,'' said Dow Fraiberg, a Polish Jew who survived Sobibor death camp. ''When I go, who will live on to give first-hand testimony of what no human can believe?''
Children interviewed at random around Israel had different reactions. Some sympathized with the survivors. Many thought the trial was overly hyped and the Holocaust better left to their history lessons.
''They picked a prison guard out of thousands and tried to make him into an Eichmann. It didn't work,'' said Tzahi Weiss, 15, whose Hungarian-born grandparents lost their families in the Auschwitz death camp.
''It's time to just leave history alone so that we can get on with our lives,'' he said as he booted a soccer ball across a Jerusalem park.
For others, the trial prompted questions of how to capture the experience for themselves, given the intangible horror.
''I could never forget, but I can never identify,'' said Tali Cohen, 17. ''So how will I explain this horror to my kids?''