John Demjanjuk is 91 years old. The retired auto worker from the Cleveland
suburb of Seven Hills 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.
Demjanjuk might be the
last person to be held accountable for war crimes associated with the
The year he was identified, the Toronto Blue Jays played their
first baseball game, “Star Wars” was released, Elvis Presley died, a new
computer company introduced the Apple II, an unknown standup comedian named Jay
Leno first appeared as a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and the
US Attorney’s Office asked a survivor of the Treblinka extermination complex to
look at some old photos.
He recognized a man from a 1951 immigration
photo and identified him as a guard who prisoners called “Ivan the Terrible.”
Two other survivors also recognized the man in the photo. It was
Since 1977, Demjanjuk has been denaturalized, ordered
deported, instead extradited to Israel to stand trial for crimes against
humanity, convicted, sentenced to death, acquitted on appeal, returned to the
United States, had his citizenship restored, denaturalized again four years
later, ordered deported again, unsuccessfully appealed to the Supreme Court,
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 finally extradited to Germany, where he is
currently being tried for war crimes.
TODAY, COUNTLESS Americans still
believe Demjanjuk is as he always claimed – a victim of mistaken identity who
never participated in the Holocaust.
This erroneous sentiment was formed
from seriously flawed reporting on the Israeli trial and the acquittal, skillful
public relations by his supporters, blunders made by the Justice Department’s
Office of Special Investigation (OSI), the fact that Demjanjuk was not a German
but, rather, a Soviet POW who volunteered to work as a death camp guard, and of
course, his insistence that he never worked for the Nazis.
after his identification, 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, in part because the sadism and brutality attributed to Demjanjuk
was extraordinary, even by Nazi standards.
The OSI did nothing to counter
the misperception, and in fact nudged it along by inadvertently withholding the
findings of a Polish investigation of the death camps in Poland that a number of
Ukrainian guards were known to inmates as Ivan the Terrible.
16, 1987, John Demjanjuk stood trial in Israel for crimes against humanity.
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.
However, the single count in the extradition and the indictment was operating
the gas chambers at Treblinka.
After his conviction and sentencing, the
appeals tribunal accepted evidence, unavailable during the trial, that either a
different or another “Ivan” operated the gas chambers. Because of this, in 1993,
the judges reluctantly acquitted a man they knew to be a murderer. Although the
405-page acquittal described other acts of murder and torture Demjanjuk
committed while serving at various concentration camps, including Trawniki,
Sobibor, Treblinka, Flossenberg and Regensburg, American media framed the
acquittal as a validation of his mistaken identity claim. The Cleveland Plain
Dealer reported that the acquittal “...prove[d] Demjanjuk was not Ivan the
Terrible,” and a short time later published an editorial titled “It’s Time to
Close the Book on the Demjanjuk Case.”
Because the OSI
failed to reveal the likelihood of additional Ivans the Terrible, the federal
courts readmitted him to the United States, and temporarily restored his
Inescapably ironic is that the clarity so lacking
in the American public’s understanding of Demjanjuk might emerge from his war
crimes trial in the very country that provided him with such a genocidal “job
opportunity” in the first place.
Some American 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.”
writer is a former radio talk show host living in Silver Lake, Ohio and the
author of Untangling John Demjanjuk, published in Midstream Magazine. He
frequently lectures on the John Demjanjuk case.