published 17/03/2012 by Robert D. McFadden
The stranger settled in Cleveland after World War II with his wife and little girl. He became an autoworker and changed his first name from Ivan to John. He had two more children, became a naturalized American, lived quietly and retired. His war and the terrors of concentration camps were all but forgotten.
Decades later, the past came back to haunt John Demjanjuk. And for the rest of his life it hovered over a tortuous odyssey of denunciations by Nazi hunters and Holocaust survivors, of questions over his identity, citizenship revocations, deportation orders and eventually trials in Israel and Germany for war crimes.
He was convicted and reprieved in Israel and, steadfastly denying the accusations, was appealing a guilty verdict in Germany when he died on Saturday at a nursing home in southern Germany, his son, John Demjanjuk Jr., said. He was 91.
Even at the end of his life questions remained in a case that had always been riddled with mysteries.
Had he been, as he and his family claimed, a Ukrainian prisoner of war in Germany and Poland who made his way to America and became a victim of mistaken identity? Or had he been, as prosecutors charged, a collaborating guard who willingly participated in the killing of Jews at the Treblinka, Majdanek and Sobibor death camps?
Nazi hunters and protesters who had demonstrated outside his home for years had no doubts. Nor did the Justice Department. Mr. Demjanjuk, stripped of his citizenship in 1981, was deported to Israel, where witnesses and an identity card of “Ivan the Terrible,” a sadist who had murdered thousands of Jews at Treblinka, had turned up. The photograph on the card bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Demjanjuk.
He was placed on trial, convicted in 1988 of crimes against humanity and sentenced to be hanged. But five years later, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the conviction when new evidence showed that another Ukrainian was probably the notorious Ivan. Back in America, Mr. Demjanjuk regained his citizenship, only to have it revoked again as new allegations arose.
Deported to Germany in 2009, Mr. Demjanjuk, suffering from bone-marrow and kidney diseases, was tried in a Munich court on charges in the killing of 27,900 Jews at the Sobibor camp in German-occupied Poland in 1943. In the nearly seven decades since 250,000 people were put to death at Sobibor, no surviving witnesses, even those who had been shown photographs, could place him at the scene.
The case was largely based on documentary evidence — an S.S. identity card purporting to be Mr. Demjanjuk’s, Nazi orders sending the man identified as Mr. Demjanjuk to work as a guard at Sobibor and other records of the era — and testimony by relatives of victims killed in the camp.
In May 2011, the Munich court found Mr. Demjanjuk guilty and sentenced him to five years in prison. He was credited with two years of pretrial detention, leaving three left to serve if an appeal failed. Pending the appeal, he was released from prison and transferred to a nursing home. The court said his age, infirmity and statelessness made it unlikely he would flee.
Even some relatives of the victims, who were recognized as co-complainants at the trial, said it was the proof of guilt, finally, that counted. “Whether it’s three, four or five years doesn’t really matter,” said David van Huiden, who lost his mother, father and sister at Sobibor. “He took part. He volunteered.”
Mr. Demjanjuk’s son, however, said that under German law, a conviction is not official until appeals are completed, and that his father’s death had the effect of “voiding” the Munich verdict.
Mr. Demjanjuk died a “a victim and a survivor of Soviet and German brutality,” his son said, adding, “History will show Germany used him as a scapegoat to blame helpless Ukrainian P.O.W.’s for the deeds of Nazi Germans.”
Ivan Demjanjuk (pronounced (dem-YAHN-yook) was born on April 3, 1920, in Dubovye Makharintsy, a village in Ukraine, to impoverished, disabled parents. The family nearly starved in a forced famine in the early 1930s that left millions dead in Ukraine. He had only four years of schooling, and was drafted into the Soviet Army in 1941. In 1942, the Germans wounded and captured him in the Crimea. What he did for the rest of the war was the crux of the issues surrounding his later life.
After the war, Mr. Demjanjuk met Vera Bulochnik in a German camp for displaced persons. They married and in 1950, still living in camps, had a daughter, Lydia. In 1952, they emigrated to the United States and settled in Cleveland. Mr. Demjanjuk became a mechanic at a Ford plant and she worked in a factory. The couple had two more children, John Jr. and Irene. In 1958, Mr. Demjanjuk was naturalized. In 1973, the family moved to the Cleveland suburb of Seven Hills.
Besides his son, Mr. Demjanjuk is survived by his wife; his two daughters, Lydia Maday and Irene Nishnic; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
In 1977, the Justice Department sued to revoke Mr. Demjanjuk’s citizenship, saying he had lied on his immigration application to hide mass murders and other war crimes at Treblinka, the camp in Poland where 870,000 died. The accusations arose from Holocaust survivors who had identified Mr. Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible, a Ukrainian captured and trained by the Germans to operate gas chambers.
In 1981, after years of delays, a federal judge ruled that Mr. Demjanjuk had lied on his immigration papers and revoked his citizenship. He appealed, and the case was pending when Israel extradited him to stand trial as Ivan the Terrible. He was deported to Israel in 1986, and the trial began in 1987.
Prosecutors produced a Nazi identity card, said to be from the S.S. training camp at Trawniki, Poland, that bore what looked like Mr. Demjanjuk’s photograph. It cited his name and date of birth, his father’s name, and a scar like one Mr. Demjanjuk had.
Prosecutors said he had volunteered to collaborate and had been trained at Trawniki to run diesel engines that supplied carbon monoxide for gas chambers. They said he had killed thousands at Treblinka in 1942 and 1943. Treblinka survivors testified that Ivan the Terrible had also savaged Jews, breaking arms and legs with a steel pipe, cutting off ears and noses with a sword, and flogging women and children with sadistic glee.
But the defense noted that the survivors were relying on memories four decades old. It also challenged the identity card, saying the photo showed signs of having been lifted from another document, cited an incorrect height for Mr. Demjanjuk, and said its bearer had been at camps in Poland at Chelmno in 1942 and Sobibor in 1943 but did not mention Treblinka. Mr. Demjanjuk testified that he had been held as a prisoner at Chelmno for 18 months until 1944, and then in Austria until the war’s end.
Found guilty and sentenced to death in 1988, he was held until 1993, when the Israeli Supreme Court struck down his conviction, citing new evidence from former guards at Treblinka that Ivan the Terrible was another Ukrainian, Ivan Marchenko. On his citizenship application, Mr. Demjanjuk had listed his mother’s maiden name as Marchenko, but contended later that he had forgotten her real maiden name and used Marchenko only because it was common in Ukraine.
Released by Israel, Mr. Demjanjuk returned to Cleveland, where a federal appeals court overturned his 1981 conviction for lying on his immigration papers, saying prosecutors had deliberately withheld evidence and committed fraud. His citizenship was restored in 1998.
But in 1999, the government again sued to strip him of citizenship, charging that he had been a Nazi guard at Majdanek and Sobibor in Poland and at Flossenbürg in Bavaria. After a trial, a court in 2002 upheld the government. An appeal confirmed the decision in 2004. In 2005, he was ordered deported to Germany, Poland or Ukraine, and the United States Supreme Court denied him a hearing in 2008.
In 2009, Germany agreed to accept Mr. Demjanjuk as a deportee to stand trial on charges that he helped kill Jews at Sobibor. His lawyers and family argued that he was too sick, but doctors concluded that he was fit enough.
The case involved 15 transport trains known to have arrived at Sobibor in 1943 from the Westerbork camp in the Netherlands, carrying 29,579 people. Mr. Demjanjuk was charged with 27,900 counts based on a theory that some must have died in transit.
“When a transport of Jews arrived, routine work was suspended and all camp personnel took part in the routine process of extermination,” the indictment said. The unloading of the trains proceeded “with loud cries, blows and also shots. If people refused to come out, the Trawnikis entered the cars and forced those who hesitated, with violence, out of the train and onto the ramp.”
In painful detail, witnesses like Rudie S. Cortissos recited dates when the trains arrived, the number of people aboard and the names of prisoners. Mr. Cortissos said his mother arrived on May 21, 1943, with 2,300 others, mostly Dutch Jews who were immediately sent to the gas chambers.
Defense lawyers argued that the Soviets had falsified Mr. Demjanjuk’s identity card and other documents, but a judge found a clear trail of evidence showing his path from Soviet prisoner to Sobibor guard. The court rejected arguments that he had no choice but to work in the camp, and concluded that it would have been impossible for a guard there not to have been part of the Nazi death machinery.
Evidence at the trial also filled in previously unknown details of Mr. Demjanjuk’s life between Sobibor and the end of the war. It showed that after Sobibor was shut down in 1943, Mr. Demjanjuk served in a Ukrainian unit that fought alongside the Germans, was captured by American forces in 1945 and was sent to the displaced persons camp where he met and married the woman who was to share his odyssey.
The Munich case might well have been the last major war crimes trial in Germany, ending an era that began in Nuremberg in 1945. As survivors and defendants have aged and died, the prosecution of Nazi-era war criminals has become increasingly rare and difficult.
And the elusiveness lies not only in the distance of the past, as Justice Meir Shamgar of the Israeli Supreme Court said in striking down Mr. Demjanjuk’s conviction. “This was the proper course for judges who cannot examine the heart and the mind, but have only what their eyes see and read,” he wrote. “The matter is closed — but not complete. The complete truth is not the prerogative of the human judge.”
published 17/03/2012 by Robert D. McFadden