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Accused Nazi Guard John Demjanjuk

5 minute read
Alex Altman

It took a special brand of cruelty to stand out amid the horrors of the Holocaust, but “Ivan the Terrible” was no ordinary sadist. As a Nazi guard, Ivan earned his sobriquet by ushering thousands of prisoners — sometimes hacking them with a sword as they passed — into the gas chambers at Poland’s Treblinka death camp. After the war, he vanished. Decades later, in the late 1970s, U.S. authorities fingered a suspect: John Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker residing in a Cleveland suburb.

Thus began Demjanjuk’s tangled journey toward justice — or, aspolitical commentator Pat Buchanan put it, a series of Salem witchtrials. Demjanjuk, who has long maintained his innocence, became just the second accused Holocaust war criminal sentenced to deathby the state of Israel, but he was released when exculpatory evidence withheld at histrial later emerged. He has had his U.S. citizenship revoked, then reinstated. In March 2009, after a protracted period of diplomatic wrangling, Demjanjuk was extradited to Germany, where a German court charged the 89-year-old with being an accessory to at least 27,900 murders. The allegations stem not from Ivan the Terrible’s reign at Treblinka but rather from Demjanjuk’s alleged role as a guard at Sobibor, another Nazi death camp. On Nov. 30,the accused was wheeled into a Munich courtroom for the start of what couldbe the last major Nazi war-crimes trial.

(See TIME’s top 10 crime stories of 2008.)

Fast Facts:

• A native Ukrainian, John (né Ivan) Demjanjuk has said he was conscripted into the Red Army in 1940 and captured by the Nazis in 1942. The following three years are up for debate. Prosecutors say he volunteered for the German SS and was trained as a camp guard. Substantial evidence places Demjanjuk at Nazi camps.

• After living in Bavaria immediately following World War II, Demjanjuk emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Cleveland. He toiled unremarkably until 1977, when evidence that he may have served as a Nazi guard sparked an investigation into his past. In 1981 an Ohio court ruled that Demjanjuk was indeed an escaped Nazi war criminal and stripped him of his citizenship. Israeli police, acting on a tip from U.S. immigration officials, found several Treblinka survivors who identified Demjanjuk as the notorious Ivan the Terrible. (Some have argued that the process by which Demjanjuk was identified was legally flawed.)

• In 1986 Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel. Two years later, after a much heralded trial that featured testimony from five Treblinka survivors, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

• Demjanjuk’s case was reopened in 1993 after Israeli courts unveiled testimony from 37 former guards and laborers at Treblinka that suggested Demjanjuk was not their man. The aggregated statements — which had been withheld at trials — instead implicated another Ukrainian, Ivan Marchenko. The Israeli Supreme Court found that while Demjanjuk had served as a guard at three concentration camps, he was not, in fact, the infamous Nazi. His conviction and death sentence were vacated.

• Following his release, Demjanjuk returned to the U.S., where his citizenship was restored in 1998. The following year, new evidence spurred the U.S. Justice Department to rekindle the case.

• He has since fought an ongoing battle against U.S. authorities seeking to deport him. In 2005 an immigration court ruled that he could be sent to Germany, Poland or his native Ukraine, and last May, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The charges brought against him in Germany were triggered by recently obtained lists of Jews transported to Sobibor during Demjanjuk’s alleged tenure at the camp in 1943.

Quotes About:

• “The matter is closed but not complete.”
—From a 1993 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that held that sufficient proof did not exist to find that Demjanjuk was “Ivan the Terrible.”

• “God help us. We are the Salem judges of our own time.”
—Pat Buchanan, arguing that Demjanjuk’s 1988 conviction in Israel was the result of a witch hunt. (New York Post, March 17, 1990)

• “Ivan the Terrible walked out a free man.”
— Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israeli office of the Simon Wiesenthal Institute, speaking after Demjanjuk’s 1993 release. (New York Times, July 30, 1993)

• “He has never hurt anyone — before, during or after the war. He is a good person, as his family, grandchildren, friends and neighbors have always maintained.”
— John Demjanjuk Jr., son of the accused, after Germany filed charges against his father. (AP, March 11, 2009)

• “To show the world that we have changed and that it’s not going to happen again.”
— Susanne Ehard, a 20-year-old German, on why Germany has sought Demjanjuk’s extradition. (Cleveland Jewish News, March 13, 2009)

Quotes By:

• “Please do not put the noose around my neck for the deeds of others.”
— Entry in People of the Holocaust, 1998 edition

• “I am an innocent man. I’ll appeal, and I’m sure that I will win.”
— Maintaining his innocence after being convicted and sentence to death by hanging in 1988. (BBC, Apr. 18, 2005)

Read “Ivan the Not-So-Terrible.”

Read “The Case of Ivan the Almost-As-Terrible.”

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Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com