Holocaust justice: The final chapter

John Demjanjuk, who turned 91 in April, is possibly the last person who will ever be held accountable for war crimes associated with the Holocaust.

John Demjanjuk 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Lukas Barth/Pool)
John Demjanjuk 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Lukas Barth/Pool)
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 Holocaust.
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 Demjanjuk.
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.
Immediately 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.
On February 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.”
Not quite.
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 American citizenship.
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.”
The 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.