Grumpy Old Man: Demaniac

Israelis had a lot of names for John Demjanjuk, but just about everyone agreed he was guilty.

John Demjanjuk 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Michael Dalder)
John Demjanjuk 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Michael Dalder)
Ivan (John) Demjanjuk’s miserable, 35-year legal odyssey is over.
Starting in the 1970s, the US government began investigating the Ukraine-born autoworker over whether he had lied during his naturalization process in the early 1950s to cover up his wartime past. It determined that he had, and revoked his American citizenship.
Suits and countersuits over a threatened deportation followed. By now retired, Demjanjuk lost, and in 1986 was extradited to Israel, where the State Attorney’s Office said it had evidence that after fighting the Germans as a soldier in the Red Army and being taken captive, he had been trained to be a death-camp guard.
Assigned to Treblinka, he allegedly helped run the gas chambers, but was so cruel and sadistic that he came to be known to inmates and fellow guards alike as “Ivan the Terrible,” who amused himself by beating and even hacking to death many of the poor Jewish souls waiting to die.
A special court panel mounted a four-and-a-halfmonth trial that included expert witnesses from both Israel and abroad, and – even more damning – several Treblinka survivors who said with absolute certainty that Ivan the Terrible and the defendant were one and the same.
The three judges found Demjanjuk guilty and sentenced him to death. Except that several years later, the country’s top court overturned the verdict, citing several reasons. Some stemmed from the questionable role that memories diminished by time, age and emotion can play in a capital case. But most of it was due to the possibility that a key identification card provided by the Soviet Union, perhaps bent on revenge against a former citizen who had changed sides, might have been forged or at least tampered with.
Repatriation to the US and the reinstatement of Demjanjuk’s citizenship followed – although there were further investigations and yet another citizenship revocation and deportation, this time to Germany, where he was found guilty last May of having been a death camp guard at Sobibor. But on March 17, at age 91, after having been admitted in poor health to a German nursing home to await his appeal, he died.
FROM START to finish, I covered the Israeli trial of Demjanjuk (pronounced Dem-yahn-yook, with an emphasis on the second syllable) for an American broadcast network. It was a far cry from the only other Nazi trial Israel had conducted – that of Adolf Eichmann, a top figure in Hitler’s death machine.
Unlike with Eichmann there had been no James Bond-style capture, safe-house seclusion, sedation and secretive journey to Israel. Demjanjuk landed in Tel Aviv aboard a regularly scheduled El Al flight, and I was there to watch US marshals descend with him from the 747’s rear stairway where, halfway down, he tripped.
Unlike the Eichmann trial, there was no glass booth. Instead, Demjanjuk sat behind a small counter with a police guard on either side. He wore headphones for a translation of proceedings he often seemed to ignore as he looked around the courtroom through heavy glasses, and on occasion even appeared to nod off.
And unlike Eichmann, who shortly after his capture in Buenos Aires admitted exactly who he was – even reciting his SS identification number by heart – Demjanjuk continued to deny the charges against him. To the very end he claimed he had spent most of the war in various POW camps before signing up to fight against the Soviets in a German-sponsored unit of Russian speakers. It was, the burly, bald man insisted in his thick, slow and often slurred manner of speech, a case of mistaken identity.
In between reams of mind-numbing facts and data presented during the testimony, there were several incidents of high drama. In one, a Treblinka survivor rose from the witness stand and walked over to Demjanjuk when asked if the defendant was indeed Ivan the Terrible. In clear, stark and chilling language the witness answered in the affirmative – at which point Demjanjuk reached out as if to shake hands. The witness shrieked and recoiled, and just about everyone in the courtroom froze in place for several electric seconds.
A NUMBER of times during the course of the trial I met with Demjanjuk’s son, John Jr., who was present for most of the proceedings. He was about a decade younger than me, unfailingly friendly and polite, and very easy to talk to.
Most of our conversations were about the trial, of course, but we talked about other things, too. For example, what it was like to be the son of a man accused of such heinous deeds (“really hard”) and whether wartime hatred, fear and suffering might have driven his father to do at least some of the things he was being accused of (“no way”). Inevitably, the conversation turned to how the Holocaust had shaped the Israeli psyche (“I can’t blame anyone here for being angry and wanting to take it out on my father”).
There was a lot of anger in Israel. During the trial I’d spend time talking to spectators in the courtroom and to people in the street, where everywhere there seemed to be a radio droning the sound of testimony from the live broadcasts. Every place you went, especially during the first weeks, it was clear what Israelis thought.
“Demaniac,” one vendor in the Mahaneh Yehuda fruit and vegetable market called the man on trial, using a play on the Hebrew slang for a detestable person. “He should end up like Eichmann. I’d volunteer to be the hangman.”
It was a quarter of a century after that trial, which Ben- Gurion and others said would serve the dual purpose of meting out justice and teaching new generations about what happened. Since Eichmann, the wound had never closed, but now it was being ripped all the way open again with the subtlety and precision of an out-of-balance chain saw.
When the verdict and death sentence were announced, much of the courtroom erupted in wild applause and loud cheers to the point where, banging his gavel, the senior judge, the late Supreme Court justice Dov Levin, angrily demanded that the celebrations cease.
For me it was a confusing moment. There was the professional side – I had to run to the phones for a live, on-air report. There was the personal side – my Silesian-born grandparents had been just about the only members of their families to survive thanks to the good fortune of emigrating to the United States at the turn of the century. And there was the human side – this was a momentous point in Israeli and Jewish history, yet awareness of this fact now clashed with everything I had been taught about civility and decency, even in the presence of evil.
Eichmann, although insisting he had been under orders, admitted to his evil wartime deeds. To the very end, over the course of more than a third of a century, Demjanjuk did not. In fact, under German law, a person is considered innocent not until proven guilty, but until the appeals process has been exhausted. Demjanjuk’s had yet to even begin.
Demaniac or not, legally he died an innocent man.