Robert Fisk, humanitarian, Middle East
historian, lover of life extraordinaire

George Salzman   <>
initial posting 26 August 2010 - last update 27 August 2011


Asking the essential questions [1], [2]

Fisk, a man without hatreds, asks:
How long does it take before justice is irrelevant?

Saturday, 20 August 2011

It took 18 years to convict John Demjanjuk for crimes at Sobibor

      A great storm blew across Europe in 1993 and even the trees of Treblinka were torn out by their roots. The Nazis had destroyed their death camp before the arrival of the Red Army almost half a century earlier, scattering the remains of hundreds of thousands of their Jewish victims.

      Now, only a series of grey stones, each marked with the town or city in which the unseen dead once lived, lay across the site, along with candles and — after the tempest — a litter of uprooted trees. I wandered across and looked at the upturned roots. There were tiny fragments of bone in the undergrowth and in one twisted root, a human tooth; it had a dentist’s filling which faintly reflected the grey Polish afternoon.

      With director Michael Dutfield, I was making a film series, Beirut to Bosnia, which asked why Muslims had come to hate the West. I had traced the original home of a Palestinian exile in Beirut to Acre; here, the elderly Jewish owner — for under Israeli law, the Palestinian home was now his home — told me of his eviction from Poland and the murder of his mother in the gas chambers of Treblinka. We found his Polish house in the town of Trebinja — “are they coming back?” the woman householder asked in consternation after I knocked on the door in the desolate coal-mining town — and filmed at Treblinka where the old man’s mother had been killed.

      There is a bleak railway station, still with a “Treblinka” sign over the platform, and a grass-covered way where a siding once took the cattle trains of Jews into the tall trees obscuring the camp and up to the selection ramps. Even the roads we drove on to reach Treblinka were built by the Nazis. I knew all about this wickedness. Only six years earlier, in Jerusalem, I had attended part of the trial of “Ivan the Terrible”, the death camp guard who had bludgeoned the Jews into the gas chambers of this awful place. Day after day, Israeli schoolchildren would be taken to the modern little courtroom in west Jerusalem where John Demjanjuk was on trial, to learn at first hand what fate the Nazis — Demjanjuk was himself a Ukrainian — had visited on the Jews of Europe.

      Demjanjuk, with his piercing glasses and sharp face, looked every bit the part as witnesses stepped forward to identify him as the cruellest of their tormentors at Treblinka. His European lawyer, an Irishman who stayed at the American Colony hotel, insisted that Demjanjuk’s identity card, a vital part of Israel’s evidence, was a forgery.

      He was a handsome man — Israeli girls swooned over him — who took his lawyer’s duties as seriously as the court took their responsibility for the accused. Demjanjuk was innocent, he insisted. And, after sentencing him to death and confining him to six years in a condemned cell, the court eventually came to the same conclusion. Demjanjuk was not “Ivan the Terrible”. He was sent back to America, whence he had originally been extradited. Although vital evidence had been kept from the trial judges by the Americans — and despite the fairness of the Israeli trial of an even greater monster, Adolf Eichmann, in 1962 — this was not Israel’s finest hour.

      So I was all the more stunned when, driving back from Treblinka to Warsaw after our 1993 film shoot — it was the same year as Demjanjuk’s release — our Polish translator, a young female lawyer, asked if I had heard of the Ukrainian Nazi camp guard. Yes, I said, I had been at Demjanjuk’s trial in Jerusalem. We were now travelling close to Sobibor, a brutal satellite camp of Treblinka during the Nazi occupation, and our translator suddenly remarked that “everyone round here knows Demjanjuk”. I turned to her in amazement. “Yes,” she said. “His then-wife lived in Sobibor, not Treblinka, and lots of people knew her and knew him. His name is very well known in Sobibor.” That wonderful writer Gitta Sereny had already worked out the Sobibor connection. But here were people who actually remembered Demjanjuk.

      I returned to the kidnap hell of Beirut and quickly forgot the conversation. And there I still was in the Middle East three months ago when John Demjanjuk went on trial yet again, this time in Germany and — much more to the point — for his crimes against humanity at Sobibor. No longer the sharp–faced bureaucrat–guard I had seen in Jerusalem, no longer gifted with the sobriquet of “Ivan the Terrible” (real name Ivan Marchenko), he wore large black sunglasses and sat on a hospital gurney — he was now 91 — and spoke not a word during his Munich trial.

      He got a mere five years’ imprisonment for complicity in the murder of 28,060 Jews at Sobibor and was allowed to go free pending his appeal. One of the very last survivors of Sobibor, 90-year old Jules Schelvis, who lost his wife and parents in the gas chambers, put a very pertinent question at the end of the trial. “Have we won or have we lost?” he asked.

      Why did it take 18 years — from Jerusalem to Munich — to get Demjanjuk? I ask myself this question in Beirut where lesser criminals — responsible for perhaps a thousand deaths, maybe two thousand, in the Beirut civil war — live happily on in permanent immunity scarcely 21 years after their crimes were committed.

      I hope Demjanjuk ends his days in prison. But why didn’t the Israelis get his identity right? Why didn’t they try him for Sobibor? Why did I return to Beirut and forget about the conversation with my Polish translator? How come Milosevic dies in jail and Mladic and Karadzic await their day in court, while Demjanjuk is safely tucked up at home? Justice? How many years after the murder of the man whose decaying tooth I found at Treblinka does his killer become irrelevant, the crime more important than the criminal?

Fisk questions,
Our right to be lethally–armed teachers?

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The West is offering lessons in democracy to New Libya; how to
avoid the chaos we ourselves inflicted on the Iraqis?
How long before the dominoes fall?

      The remaining Arab potentates and tyrants have spent a second sleepless night. How soon will the liberators of Tripoli metamorphose into the liberators of Damascus and Aleppo and Homs? Or of Amman? Or Jerusalem? Or of Bahrain or Riyadh? It’s not the same, of course.

      The Arab Spring-Summer-Autumn has proved not just that the old colonial frontiers remain inviolate — an awful tribute to imperialism, I suppose — but that every revolution has its own characteristics. If all Arab uprisings have their clutch of martyrs, some rebellions are more violent than others. As Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said at the start of his own eventual downfall, “Libya is not Tunisia, it’s not Egypt . . . It will become civil war. There will be bloodshed on the streets.” And there was.

      And so we gaze into the crystal ball. Libya will be a Middle East superpower — unless we impose an economic occupation as the price of Nato’s “liberating” bombardment — and a less African, more Arab country now that Gaddafi’s obsession with central and southern Africa has disappeared. It may infect Algeria and Morocco with its freedoms. The Gulf states will be happy — up to a point — since most regarded Gaddafi as mentally unstable as well as mischievous. But unseating tyrannical Arab rulers is a dangerous game when unelected Arab rulers join in. Who now remembers the forgotten 1977 war in which Anwar Sadat sent his bombers to pulverise Gaddafi’s airbases — the very same airbases Nato has been attacking these past months — after Israel warned the Egyptian president that Gaddafi was planning his assassination? But Gaddafi’s dictatorship outlived Sadat by 30 years.

      Yet like all the others, Libya suffered from the cancer of the Arab world: financial — and moral — corruption. Will the future be any different? We have spent far too much time honouring the courage of Libyan “freedom fighters” as they scurried across the desert floor, far too little time examining the nature of the beast, the glutinous Transitional National Council whose supposed leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, has still been unable to explain if his own chums connived in the murder of their own army commander last month. Already, the West is offering lessons in democracy to New Libya, indulgently telling its unelected leadership how to avoid the chaos which we ourselves inflicted on the Iraqis when we “liberated” them eight years ago. Who will get the backhanders in the new regime — democratic or not — once it is in place?

      And just as all new regimes contain dark figures from the past — Adenauer’s Germany as much as Maliki’s Iraq — so Libya will have to accomodate Gaddafi’s tribes. The scenes in Green Square yesterday were painfully similar to the crazed adoration on display at the same location for Gaddafi just a few weeks ago. Recall, then, the day De Gaulle was asked by an aide how the crowds greeting him after the 1944 liberation of France were as large as the crowds applauding Pétain a few weeks earlier. “Ils sont les mêmes,” De Gaulle is said to have replied. “They are the same.”

      Not all. How soon will the world be knocking on the door of the supposedly dying Abdulbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber — if indeed he was guilty of the crime — to discover the secret of his longevity and of his activities within Gaddafi’s secret service? How soon will the liberators of Tripoli get their hands on the files of Gaddafi’s oil and foreign ministries to find out the secrets of the Blair-Sarkozy-Berlusconi love affairs with the author of the Green Book? Or will British and French spooks beat them to it?

      And how soon, we must ask, before the people of Europe demand to know why, if Nato has been so successful in Libya — as Cameron and his mates now claim — it cannot be used against Assad’s legions in Syria, using Cyprus as a territorial aircraft-carrier, devastating the regime’s 8,000 tanks and armoured vehicles as they besiege the country’s cities. Or must we heed the neighbours; Israel still secretly hopes (as it shamefully did in the case of Egypt) that the dictator will survive to be a friend and make an ultimate peace over Golan.

      Israel, which has been so skewed and immature in its response to the Arab awakening — why on earth did its leaders not welcome the Egyptian revolution, opening their arms to a people who showed they wanted the democracy which Israel always boasts of, instead of shooting dead five Egyptian soldiers in the latest Gaza shoot-out? — has much to ponder.

      Ben Ali gone, Mubarak gone, Saleh more or less gone, Gaddafi overthrown, Assad in danger, Abdullah of Jordan still facing opposition, Bahrain’s minority Sunni monarchy still suicidally hoping to rule for eternity. These are massive historical events to which the Israelis have responded with a kind of appalled, hostile apathy. At the very moment when Israel might be able to claim that its Arab neighbours are only seeking the freedoms that Israelis already possess — that there is a brotherhood of democracy that might go beyond frontiers — it sulks and builds more colonies on Arab land and continues to delegitimise itself while accusing the world of trying to destroy it.

      But the Ottoman empire cannot be forgotten at so critical an hour. At the height of its power, you could travel from Morocco to Constantinople without papers. With freedom in Syria and Jordan, we could travel from Algeria to Turkey and onwards into Europe without so much as a visa. The Ottoman Empire reborn! Except for the Arabs, of course. Be sure they will still need visas.

      We are not there yet. How soon will the Shiites of Bahrain and the listless Saudi masses, sitting atop so much wealth, ask why they cannot control their own countries and press on to overthrow their effete rulers? How gloomily Maher al-Assad, brother of Bashar and commander of Syria’s infamous 4th Brigade, must have listened to al-Jazeera’s last phone call to Mohammed Gaddafi. “We lacked wisdom and foresight,” Mohammed complained to the world before gunfire broke across his voice. “They are in the house!”. Then: “God is great.” And the line went dead.

      Every unelected Arab leader — or any Muslim leader “elected” through fraud — will have pondered that voice. Wisdom is certainly a quality much lacking in the Middle East, foresight a skill which the Arabs and the West have both neglected. East and West — if they can be divided so crudely — have both lost the ability to think of the future. The next 24 hours is all that matters. Will there be protests in Hama tomorrow? What is Obama to say on prime time? What is Cameron to say to the world? Domino theories are a fraud. The Arab Spring is going to last for years. We better think about that. There is no “end of history”.

[1] Two people who insist on asking the essential questions are Robert Fisk and Eric Walberg. Each of them is focussed in a large sense on knowing: How can humanity make good lives for all the world’s peoples? Among my many Jewish American friends a fair number unfortunately believe that is an impossibility: Their view is that humans are a genetically determined species of hominids programmed for violence and mutual destruction. My effort has been to try to counter this belief, which I am completely convinced is lacking validity, in spite of being widely promoted among the world’s “intelligencia”. My effort to formulate this much more “optimistic” possibility for our future led me to a fairly brief sketch for a humane resolution of the Palestine/Israel conflict. In fact the ideas there are immediately generalizable to apply to all so-called ethnic conflicts in the world.

Making a Palestine of happy children
A model for making a world of happy people

      The destruction of Palestine should be stopped and the land returned to its indigenous peoples. I presented a fairly brief sketch for doing this without any further bloodshed, torture, theft or suffering of any of the peoples involved, including the would-be Jewish Zionist conquerors. It’s so easy to scoff at the notion of seeking a non-violent, humane resolution, and to declare without further thought, That would be contrary to human nature. So easy and so fatal. One of the things I have learned from the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca is the existence of a “better way” to settle conflicts than British officialdom ever dreamed of.

      To people whose life experience has been shaped almost entirely by the contemporary dominant global ideology, the possibility of a different way of living — with a really totally different set of governing values — seems inconceivable to most of the people I know in the U.S. It must seem to them that I’m oblivious to what “human nature” is, that I’m living in a dream world. So they act like the normal people they are: they ignore me and what seem to them to be my “mad ravings”.

      No one can be expected to comprehend events and/or possibilities for human interaction that are totally outside his/her life experiences. If you tried to tell a native bushman of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa about snow, you would be thought to be delusional. Most of my American contacts have life experiences limited to the U.S. To them my experiences among indigenous Oaxaqueños who are not “naturally greedy and aggressive” seem incredible. They take me for a deluded romantic, and dismiss my vision of “how the world could be”. They “know” — they believe — what “human nature” is, and that, like an engraving in stone, it is frozen forever. I see their attitude as showing an unrelenting stubborness. And, I should empahsize, this stubborness is by no means limited to my self-labelled “liberal” friends. My American anarchist friends are also addicted to the notion that they are entitled to live at a level of material wealth that is increasingly beyond the reach of former “middle class” Americans. They too enjoy being privileged. Surprise! Surprise!

      Just yesterday (the 18th of Aug 2011) I got a letter from an anarchist friend, who wrote in part, “XXXXX and I are safely back from Bread and Puppet in Vermont, and are all fired up, with batteries recharged, and working hard to "change the world." It was raining hard the whole way back. It was a difficult drive, but XXXXX got us through it okay”. The intrepid strugglers battling for a better world by driving several hundred miles to celebrate with other “turned on” radicals. How much gasoline burned? How much ecological damage in the pursuit of fun? No clue. No interest. It’s their right to have fun. And these are committed American anarchists! Do I sound as though I have contempt for principled people who prefer to win an argument and lose the world than to lose an argument? You bet! Preventing the genocide of the Palestinians is my first priority. Here are two papers on saving the Palestinians:

      There are only two possibilities at the moment for global human society: Either we will learn to love one another in a global culture that discards notions of ethnic divisions, or we will all (or nearly all) perish in the massive irreversible heating of the ecosphere into a Venus-like furnace. Of course I know that I am “preaching”. But what else can an old man do — an old man who “sees the light” where so many millions, in particular the hyper-wealthy, see only darkness. For me, a committed athiest communist, it is not a matter of adhering to Jesus Christ’s beliefs, but recognizing, as a physicist — a “hard scientist”, that love — true love of life — is the only way. To renovate Margaret Thatcher’s vulgar praise of market capitalism and empire “There is no alternative (TINA)” into into an equally brief, but truthful assertion, “There was an alternative (TWAA)”

[2] Both of these catchy quips are in EricWallberg’s outstandingly perceptive book, Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games, p14.

George Salzman is a former American Jew living in Oaxaca, Mexico, an ex-physics prof, Univ of Massachusetts-Boston.
All comments and criticisms are welcome.  <>

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Initial posting of this page: 26-08-2011.
Last update: 27-08-2011