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John Demjanjuk : Untangling "Ivan the Terrible"

by Mark Kaufman

In 2010, John Demjanjuk turned 90 years old. The man who came to be known as ‘Ivan the Terrible’ and the subject of the most protracted war crimes case in history is on trial in Germany for mass murder committed before most people alive today were born, and nearly 33 years after he was first identified.

The year Demjanjuk was identified, the Toronto Blue Jays played their first baseball game ever, Star Wars exploded on the movie screens, Elvis Presley died, a new computer company introduced the Apple II, a young standup comedian named Jay Leno first appeared as a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office asked Eliyahu Rosenberg, an Israeli warehouse manager who escaped from the Treblinka extermination complex in 1943, to look at some old photos.

Rosenberg recognized a man from a 1951 immigration photo and identified him as an S.S. ‘Wachman’ (guard) who prisoners called ‘Ivan Grozny’ (Ivan the Terrible). Two other survivors, Pinchas Epstein and Chaim Rajrodski, also recognized the man in the photo, a Ukrainian immigrant living in Seven Hills, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. The survivors made the identification shortly before the Justice Department created the Office of Special Investigation (OSI) specifically to track down Nazi criminals who illegally entered the country. The man in the photo was John Demjanjuk.

Ivan Demjanjuk was born in 1920 in the Ukrainian village of Duboviye Makharynsty, near Vinitsa. Life was little more than survival, even before Stalin starved to death about 7 million Ukrainians in a campaign to end private land ownership. In 1939, Demjanjuk was drafted into the Soviet Army.

After the Wehrmacht swallowed up much of Europe, Hitler turned his forces towards Moscow. More than 3 million Nazi soldiers were poised to push eastward, and in July of 1941, the German Army crossed the Dnieper River in the Ukraine. Three months later, Kiev fell under siege, where Demjanjuk was wounded. After his recovery in the early months of 1942, he was sent back to the front. By then, the fighting had eased. 

All that changed on May 8, when the Luftwaffe bombarded the ancient Ukrainian city of Kerch.  The Soviet Army was completely overrun. Within a week, the German Army captured nearly 200,000 prisoners. 

So many of the 3 million Soviet POW’s were broken and worn down from combat that nearly one in four chose to work for the Nazis in various capacities. Since many hailed from cultures with a history of anti-Semitism, putting them to work in the death camps was not merely efficient, it was mostly effortless. Among these POW’s was 22-year-old Ivan Demjanjuk.

After the war, Demjanjuk came to the United States with his wife Vera, who he met in a displaced persons camp. He legally changed his name to John and settled in Seven Hills. He was hired by the Ford Motor Company as a mechanic, and worked for Ford until his retirement. But the heart of this tangled saga is where Demjanjuk was and what he did from the time of his capture through the end of World War II.

Since 1977, Demjanjuk was denaturalized, ordered deported to the Soviet Ukraine, extradited to Israel to stand trial for crimes against humanity, convicted and sentenced to death, acquitted on appeal, permitted to return to the United States, had his citizenship restored in Federal court, denaturalized again four years later by the same judge who restored his citizenship, was ordered deported again, appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, faced an extradition request from Germany, spared from deportation by a Federal Judge, again ordered to be extradited to Germany to stand trial for war crimes, spared from extradition because of ill health, found to be faking the seriousness of his illness, and ordered extradited to Germany, where he began being tried for war crimes in 2009.

Today, countless Americans believe Demjanjuk is as he has always claimed –  a victim of mistaken identity who never participated in the Holocaust.

After the Treblinka survivors identified him, Demjanjuk insisted he was in a POW camp in Chelm, Poland for the duration of the war. During his denaturalization hearing, Justice Department attorneys showed that a POW camp did not exist in Chelm at the time Demjanjuk claimed to have been there.  Although he changed his alibi a few times, the Chelm story is the one Demjanjuk used most often.  It was the one that he settled on during the closing arguments of his Israeli trial.  To this day, it remains his claim.

The cloud of confusion surrounding Demjanjuk can be attributed to his mistaken identity claim, blunders made by the OSI, the fact that Demjanjuk was not a German but, rather, a Ukrainian who served in the Soviet Army, and a gross misrepresentation by American media of the Israeli trial, the successful appeal, and the scope of Demjanjuk’s place in Holocaust history.

This confusion began immediately after the media began covering the story. As reporters wrote about Demjanjuk, his public image morphed into that of an infamous singular Nazi war criminal known in WWII history as “Ivan the Terrible.” Although reports noted that he was a camp guard, his perceived role in the Holocaust grew, perhaps because the brutality attributed to Demjanjuk was extraordinary, even by Nazi standards.

The OSI did nothing to counter the misperception of Demjanjuk’s role, and in fact, nudged it along by withholding from Demjanjuk’s lawyers the findings of a Polish investigation of the death camps in Poland that there may have been additional Ukrainian guards known to inmates as Ivan the Terrible.

The first step on Demjanjuk’s legal odyssey was his denaturalization in 1981. After Federal Judge Frank Battisti stripped him of his citizenship, Judge Robert Angelelli ordered him deported. Demjanjuk’s destination was to be the Soviet Union, specifically the Ukraine. Secretary of State George Schultz approved the deportation. But before Demjanjuk was deported, Israel requested his extradition to stand trial for crimes against humanity, the only crime for which Israel imposes the death penalty. The only time Israel ever imposed the sentence was in 1962, when Karl Adolf Eichmann, the so-called “architect of the Holocaust” was executed. After all appeals, including one before Judge Robert Bork, were exhausted, the United States granted Israel’s request for extradition.

In February of 1986, Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel.  Because of defense requests for postponement, the trial itself did not commence for nearly a year. On February 16, 1987, John Demjanjuk stood trial in Israel for crimes against humanity. The single count in the indictment was operating the gas chambers at Treblinka.

The trial took place before a three judge tribunal consisting of Jerusalem District Court Judges Zvi Tal and Dahlia Dorner and Israeli Supreme Court Justice Dov Levin. Demjanjuk was represented by John Gill and Mark O’Connor, who also represented him during his denaturalization, deportation and extradition hearings in the United States. They were joined by Israeli attorney Yoram Sheftel. 

Prosecutors produced abundant evidence that Demjanjuk had “…perpetrated unspeakable acts of cruelty in conducting victims in the Treblinka concentration camp on the way to their death.” Testimony was graphic and gruesome. 

As to the single count in the indictment, the prosecution alleged that the defendant “...operated, with his own hands, the engines which pumped the poisonous exhaust fumes into the gas chambers, thus causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people killed in this manner.” 

Sheftel introduced testimony by Ignat Danielchenko, a guard at the Sobibor death camp. (Unlike Auschwitz, which was both a slave labor camp and an extermination factory, Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec, and Chelmno were created and operated exclusively to exterminate large numbers of people in the shortest possible time.) Danielchenko stated, “I saw Mr. Demjanjuk escorting prisoners in all phases, from the unloading of the trains to the entrance to the gas chamber.”

While such testimony would seem to put Demjanjuk in harm's way, its purpose was to protect him.  Sheftel's goal was to place Demjanjuk somewhere other than Treblinka during the period in question, when Demjanjuk was allegedly operating the gas chambers at Treblinka. 

A principle of law known as the doctrine of specialty prevented Israel from trying Demjanjuk for any crime other than the one for which he was specifically and exclusively extradited. This principle is spelled out in the extradition treaty between Israel and the United States, which states that “a person extradited under the present convention shall not be detained, tried or punished in the territory of the requesting party for any offence other than that for which the extradition has been granted.” For this reason, Sheftel probably assumed that proving Demjanjuk participated in the murder of civilians at Sobibor during the time in question did not hurt his case. But Sheftel, sensing this strategy might have potential drawbacks, abandoned the Sobibor alibi during his closing arguments. So he reverted to Demjanjuk’s original alibi of having been a POW at Chelm.

On February 18, 1988, he was found guilty of the sole allegation in the indictment. Two months later, Demjanjuk was sentenced to death. The conviction and sentence triggered an automatic appeal, but by this time, stories of another 'Ivan' had begun to circulate. 

Before the appeal began, Demjanjuk’s defense team was joined by former Israeli judge Dov Eitan. Just days before the scheduled start of the hearing, Eitan fell to his death from the 20th floor of the Jerusalem Tower. Although Eitan left no note, Jerusalem police ruled his death a suicide. Two days later, at Eitan's funeral, Sheftel was seriously injured when a Holocaust survivor threw acid at his face. He was hospitalized and underwent surgery to save his eyesight.

The appeal was heard by a five judge panel presided over by Israeli Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar. Unlike appeals courts in the United States, this tribunal not only accepted new evidence unavailable during the trial, but welcomed it. This distinction permitted Demjanjuk’s attorneys to introduce evidence that became available because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which occurred during his trial. 

This new evidence consisted of depositions taken in the U.S.S.R. from repatriated Ukrainians who were being interrogated about having worked for the Nazis after their capture, some of whom the Soviet Union sentenced to death for their service to the enemy after being captured. 

The testimony related to Treblinka, where many served. Some of them mentioned a Ukrainian named Ivan Marchenko, who ran the gas chambers in that camp. They testified that inmates referred to Marchenko as “Ivan Grozny,” Russian for Ivan the Terrible. Although the prosecution served up abundant evidence that Demjanjuk had killed Jewish men, women and children, sometimes in the most gruesome ways imaginable at Treblinka and other camps, he was indicted exclusively for having operated the gas chambers at Treblinka, the activity that in Israeli law elevated his action to a crime against humanity. While the prosecution showed that Demjanjuk murdered countless Jews while serving at Nazi concentration camps including Trawniki, Sobibor, Treblinka, Flossenberg and Regensburg, none of these acts were in the original indictment.

The two questions now before the appeals tribunal were if these depositions were acceptable evidence, since those who gave them could not be cross-examined, and if murders and acts of torture not specified in the original indictment could legally uphold his conviction. The Court concluded that the depositions created a reasonable doubt as to the charge in the indictment, and that other actions could not be a factor.   

Nevertheless, under a provision in Israeli law, Demjanjuk could have been found guilty of multiple murders the trial showed him to have committed.  However, this created its own legal problem because of the doctrine of specialty. As such, the five judge panel concluded that bringing new charges against Demjanjuk would not be legal without first petitioning the United States for another writ of extradition.

Because the evidence indicated that a different ‘Ivan the Terrible’ committed the single act in the original indictment, and in spite of testimony and other evidence that Demjanjuk tortured and murdered prisoners at several camps, including Treblinka, the judges reluctantly acquitted Demjanjuk. 

Demjanjuk’s life was spared not only by the Israeli Supreme Court, but by the extradition itself. Since the U.S.S.R. took a dim view of their soldiers working for the Nazis, the Soviet Union would probably have executed Demjanjuk upon his return to the Ukraine, just as it did many of the repatriated Ukrainians whose testimonies indicated a different Ivan worked the Treblinka gassing facility.

He was now free. But he was also a man without a country. 

One month before Israel acquitted Demjanjuk, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals appointed U.S. District Judge Thomas Wiseman to investigate charges of misconduct by the OSI. Wiseman ruled the OSI had played games with the evidence, but did not intentionally or unintentionally frame Demjanjuk. Wiseman also noted that because of Demjanjuk's Nazi SS service at Sobibor and his unbelievable alibis, concocted to hide all of his Nazi service, Demjanjuk's behavior contributed to his extradition. Wiseman wrote, “Mr. Demjanjuk's alibi was so incredible as to legitimately raise the suspicions of his prosecutors that he lied about everything.”

After Israel reversed the conviction, 6th Circuit Judge Gilbert Merritt then ordered Demjanjuk temporarily readmitted to the United States. The court declared that his presence was necessary to assist his attorneys in preparing for an appeal to be allowed to return to the United States permanently. 

Merritt’s ruling, and the subsequent ruling by a three-judge panel which included Merritt, that Demjanjuk may remain in the United States indefinitely, cost the judge dearly. 

At the time, Merritt was on a short list of Supreme Court nominees, but outrage in the Jewish community was intense. The Anti-Defamation League, World Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Center lodged protests. In the end, President Clinton removed Merritt from consideration.

Although the 405-page acquittal reiterated Demjanjuk’s numerous acts of murder and torture unrelated to the original indictment, American media usually framed the ruling as a validation of his claim of innocence. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported the acquittal “...prove[d] Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible.”

On Demjanjuk's return to Seven Hills after the acquittal, the family gave Mike Conway, then a reporter for WJW-TV in Cleveland, the exclusive right to broadcast images of Demjanjuk back in the bosom of his loving family. The video, shot in Demjanjuk's living room, showed a smiling John Demjanjuk playing with a grandchild born during the trial in Israel. Conway began the report over a musical intro of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree.”

Because of such coverage, most Americans embraced the Israeli Court’s ruling as an affirmation of his claim that he was an innocent victim of mistaken identity. Demjanjuk’s image as an innocent victim was further solidified with skillful public relations by his principle spokesperson, son-in-law Ed Nishnic. 

Nishnic was tireless and unrelenting in his father-in-law's defense. He rarely stumbled in his role as sculptor of Demjanjuk's public image. His damage control skills withstood the test even when Demjanjuk received public support from the Ku Klux Klan and the Institute for Historical Review, the anti-Semitic organization created to disseminate the claim that the Holocaust never happened. Nishnic distanced his father-in-law from their support while denouncing Holocaust denial. Nishnic's campaign to keep Demjanjuk's image from being associated with Holocaust revisionists nearly met with disaster when Demjanjuk's principal financial backer began to emerge from the background. 

Jerome Brentar was a wealthy Cleveland travel agent who transferred an estimated three million dollars to Demjanjuk. Much of this money, to cover legal fees and travel expenses, came out of Brentar's own pockets. Brentar never doubted Demjanjuk's innocence, but Brentar's reason for believing in Demjanjuk was different than Nishnic's.  Jerome Brentar was a Holocaust denier. Brentar addressed conferences of the Institute for Historical Review. In his talks before the I.H.R., Brentar insisted that Demjanjuk was innocent, because the crimes he was charged with are a fabrication created by the Jews. 

Brentar was born in Croatia and raised in Cleveland  In the early post-war years, Brentar, who could speak fluent German, returned to Europe. There he screened thousands of refugees as an employee of the International Refugee Organization. Between 1948 and 1950, Brentar and the late Dr. Edward O'Connor, an official with the Catholic Relief Services, worked together to secretly smuggle Nazis into the United States. In an interview published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Brentar admitted helping hundreds of Nazis defraud their way into the United States. “Whether he was in the Waffen SS or the Wehrmacht... I would permit them to be considered...”  Edward O'Connor's son Mark would later become one of Demjanjuk's defense attorneys.

Nishnic quickly responded to news reports about Brentar. He told the Cleveland Free Times, “It's obviously an attempt to discredit Mr. Demjanjuk by attacking those around him. I don't think any serious person accepts that Jerry Brentar is a Nazi sympathizer. In all the years I've known him, he has never tried to push Holocaust denial on me.... I find it sadly humorous that people are making Mr. Brentar seem like a Nazi-smuggler.” 

For years after the acquittal, news stories about Demjanjuk continued to omit any mention of his work in the camps and, as such, buttressed Demjanjuk’s posture as a victim. During this time, his most famous American advocates were Pat Buchanan and James Traficant, the Ohio congressman who was later convicted and sent to prison for taking bribes, filing false tax returns, racketeering, and forcing staff members to perform chores at his farm in Ohio and on his houseboat in Washington. Buchanan continues to author articles sympathetic to Demjanjuk. Traficant has been released from prison, and now hosts a weekly radio talk show in Cleveland.

After Demjanjuk was convicted in Israel, Traficant assisted his attorneys in obtaining previously un-released Justice Department documents, including findings of the Polish investigation that several Ukrainian guards were also known to the inmates as Ivan the Terrible. While these documents were of no use to the appeal in Israel, they did prove crucial to Demjanjuk's effort to return to the United States. Traficant even proposed a bill in the House calling for the federal government to provide financial compensation for Demjanjuk's “… pain and suffering.” The motion was not seconded. 

Demjanjuk was now home, but was rarely seen in public. He did not venture from his house, except to attend church. The Seven Hills Police Department posted several 'no trespassing' signs in his front yard. The blinds on the front windows were drawn closed day and night.

Still, a few Holocaust survivors and their supporters demonstrated in front of Demjanjuk's home whenever the Demjanjuk case made news. They carried signs reading, “We Know the Truth,” and, “6,000,000 Witnesses Call for Justice!” They chanted “Nazis out of America,” or “Nazis back to the Ukraine.” The chants were not loud. They mostly marched in silence.

On one such occasion Demjanjuk's next-door neighbor had a brief exchange with a middle-aged demonstrator. The neighbor watched the marchers while sweeping his garage. As they went past his house, he waved his fist at them, shouting that Jews deserve whatever they get because of what they did to Jesus. The demonstrator erupted. “Because you think some Jews killed your God, it’s okay to murder thousands of Jewish children twenty centuries later? So that's why Jews should die?” A Holocaust survivor quieted his fellow demonstrator, and told him not to have any exchanges with the neighbor, “…no matter what that mamzer [Yiddish for ‘bastard’] shouts at you.”

When a reporter asked the middle-aged demonstrator why Jews demonstrate in a neighborhood where the perception of Demjanjuk as an innocent man seems unshakable and nearly unanimous, he explained that he had “six million reasons” for being there. When asked about the questionable behavior by the OSI and the acquittal in Israel, he replied, “Do you think we don't know what we're doing? Or do you believe we're knowingly hounding an innocent man? The Cleveland Plain Dealer, your newspaper, published a commentary titled 'It's Time to Close the Book on the Demjanjuk Case.' Can you imagine a newspaper telling its readers to stop seeking the truth? We're out here to demand the book on Demjanjuk be kept open, that the public see Demjanjuk's past for what it is. We aren't here for revenge. We aren't calling for the executioner. We don't want his head on a platter. We want him to know that we know what he did. We want everyone else to see the truth about Mr. John Demjanjuk. Then we want him deported. He has no right to enjoy the privilege of living in America. He never did.”

Not only was Demjanjuk’s petition to remain in the United States successful, in February of 1998, federal judge Paul Matia restored Demjanjuk’s citizenship. Attorney General Janet Reno formally objected to Matia’s decision, to no avail. However, Matia’s ruling rendered it possible for the Justice Department to bring new charges against Demjanjuk

The Justice Department did just that, and four years later, Judge Matia, who had restored Demjanjuk’s citizenship, determined that Demjanjuk concealed his role in the Holocaust on his original citizenship application, reversed his decision and revoked Demjanjuk’s citizenship.

In the summer of 2006, Jerome Brentar sued the Demjanjuk family to recover some of the millions he spent trying to help Demjanjuk. During the civil trial, Cleveland businessman Martin Lax agreed to testify on behalf of Demjanjuk or, more accurately, against Brentar. Lax is a Holocaust survivor. Although Lax was certain Demjanjuk was a brutal death camp guard, he found himself in the unenviable position of taking Demjanjuk’s side against a neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier.  When Lax was asked why he would put himself in such a position, he explained that Demjanjuk’s crimes, while indefensible, were 60 years in the past. But Brentar’s Holocaust denial and neo-Nazi involvement, was ongoing.

The judge found in favor of Brentar, but reduced his award to $90,000. Members of Demjanjuk’s family helped pay the judgment. Brentar died the following December.

In 2007, Immigration Judge Michael J. Creppy ordered Demjanjuk deported again. His destination this time was to be Poland, Germany or the Ukraine. In May of 2008, the Supreme Court denied Demjanjuk's petition for review. 

One month later, Kurt Schrimm, head prosecutor at the German agency that brings Nazi war criminals to justice, reported that after interviewing numerous witnesses and obtaining documents indicating Demjanjuk’s participation in mass murder at several camps, Germany would seek Demjanjuk’s extradition. In March 2009, a German judge issued an arrest warrant for Demjanjuk

On May 11, 2009, after filing numerous unsuccessful motions in the United States and Germany, Demjanjuk was finally deported to Germany. Upon arrival in Munich, he was arrested and sent to prison. Two months later, Demjanjuk was formally charged with nearly 28,000 counts of accessory to murder. On November 30, 2009, thirty two years after he was first identified, 89-year-old John Demjanjuk went on trial in Germany.

The sign at the entrance to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp reads “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work makes you free. For more than one million Jews exterminated at the camp, the slogan’s sardonic irony transformed it into an icon of the Holocaust. While there is no record of Demjanjuk at Auschwitz, he embraced “Arbeit Macht Frei,” when, like countless Soviet POW’s, he chose work for the Nazis as a death camp guard over confinement in a stalag.

Some observers who acknowledge Demjanjuk’s participation in the Holocaust have suggested that perhaps he had no choice, since conditions in German POW camps might have been sufficiently harsh to justify such a decision.

However, in an observation from his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl provided a contrary perspective on the moral nature of such a decision:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” 

Sources: Reprinted with permission from Mark Kaufman