By the time this article reaches the readers of SHALOM, it is quite possible that the most complex case ever of a prosecuted Nazi war criminal will finally have reached its conclusion. I am referring to the trial of Ukrainian Nazi collaborator Ivan Demjanjuk which will most probably have begun in a Munich courtroom in late summer 2009 and will hopefully end an incredibly lengthy saga which included numerous trials in three different continents but has hereto failed to yield an unequivocal verdict and an appropriate punishment.
The Demjanjuk story began in the mid-1970’s when Michael Hanusiak, an American journalist of Ukrainian origin, returned from Kiev with a list of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators who had escaped after World War II to the United States. Demjanjuk’s name appeared on that list and alongside it, a reference to “Sobibor,” one of the three death camps in Poland used to carry out the notorious “Operation Reinhardt,” the plan to annihilate Polish Jewry named for the former head of the Reich Security Main Office Reinhardt Heydrich.
This allegation was sufficient to launch an investigation against Demjanjuk, which was one of the first cases initiated in the United States, where only in the mid-seventies did the government realize that they had admitted numerous Nazi war criminals and/or collaborators among the hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Displaced Persons who flocked to the United States as immigrants during the years 1948-1952. The problem was, however, that according to American law, such persons could not be tried in the US for their crimes during the Holocaust since they were committed outside the United States and their victims were not Americans. Unwilling to ignore their presence in America, the US decided to prosecute such individuals for violations of immigration and citizenship laws (most of the immigrants obtained US citizenship) since during the application process for immigration and citizenship they lied by concealing their World War II service with Nazi units or under Nazi aegis. (Each immigrant was asked for example, if he or she had fought against the Allies or had ever been members of a group which persecuted people because of their race, religion or ethnic origin, both of which were true for a large percentage of the escaped Nazi war criminals.) The punishments for these violations were loss of citizenship, followed by deportation. If there was a country seeking extradition, they would have priority over deportation.
In Demjanjuk’s case, his investigation, which initially focused on his service as a guard at Sobibor, took a surprising turn when in the course of interviews of survivors of the Treblinka death camp, who were being questioned about a Ukrainian guard named Feodor Federenko, several identified Demjanjuk, as “Ivan Grozny” or Ivan the Terrible, one of two East Europeans known for their cruelty, who operated the gas chamber in that death camp. The irony of the story is that Demjanjuk’s photograph was shown to the survivors purely by accident, but his identification as the notorious gas chamber operator changed the entire course of his own investigation and prosecution.
In order to understand how this happened, one has to be acquainted with the manner in which Nazi war criminals were investigated by the United States Office of Special Investigations . In lieu of a lineup, potential witnesses were shown photospreads of approximately ten photos to determine whether they could identify the suspects being investigated. According to OSI policy, all the photos shown to survivors had to be of individuals of the same nationality and the approximate age of the suspect and taken preferably during or immediately after World War II. Thus all the photos shown to those interviewed about Federenko had to be of Ukrainians, and Demjanjuk’s photo was one of those in the possession of the Justice Department which fulfilled all the necessary qualifications. To the investigators dismay, quite a few of the Treblinka survivors, after identifying Federenko, pointed to Demjanjuk’s photo as that of “Ivan the Terrible,” and thus in the wake of these identifications the investigators changed the focus of his investigation and indicted him on that basis, rather then on the original suspicion against him of service in Sobibor.
Demjanjuk was convicted in his original trial in Cleveland in 1981 and stripped of his American citizenship. The judge accepted his identification as “Ivan Grozny” of Treblinka, based solely on his identification by several Treblinka survivors, and the OSI proceeded to file for his deportation from the United States. But given the severity of the charges against him, (Ivan the Terrible had personally helped murder as many as several hundred thousand Jews!) the Americans obviously wanted to ensure that he would be tried for his terrible crimes, whereas the maximum punishment which could be implemented against him in the United States was deportation, and thus was born the possibility of his extradition to stand trial in Israel.
The decision on whether to extradite Demjanjuk was not as easy as it appears, and aroused some controversy in Israel, which had hereto only prosecuted (and executed) one Nazi war criminal in its entire history (Adolf Eichmann). But the enormity of the crimes attributed to “Ivan the Terrible,” the impossibility of his prosecution in the US for the murders he committed, and the fact that the key witnesses who had identified Demjanjuk as the Treblinka gas chamber operator were Israeli, ultimately convinced Israel to seek his extradition in 1986. Two years later, after a trial that attracted huge crowds in Israel and worldwide attention, he was convicted by a panel of three judges of the Jerusalem District Court and sentenced to death by hanging.
Unlike numerous trials of Nazi war criminals, the primary focus of the prosecution was to prove Demjanjuk’s identity as “Ivan Grozny,” which he denied, whereas there was no doubt as to the crimes committed. The strongest evidence presented by the prosecution which linked the defendant to Treblinka was the testimony of several Treblinka survivors who identified Demjanjuk as the Ukrainian sadist who operated the gas chamber at Treblinka. There were no documents of any sort which proved that a Wachmann named Ivan Demjanjuk had ever served at the camp.
Although service at Sobibor was included in the Israeli indictment, practically no attention was devoted to that camp, nor was any evidence presented aside from Demjanjuk’s ID card from the SS training camp at Trawniki, which clearly proved that following his training as a guard at Trawniki, he had been sent to serve at Sobibor. The card included an accurate physical description of Demjanjuk, his photo, and signature. In his defense, Demjanjuk denied that he had served at Treblinka, claiming that he had spent most of the war in a German POW camp in Chelm, Poland after his capture by the Wehrmacht. That claim was effectively refuted, however, by Israeli prosecutor Michael Shaked.
Any defendant sentenced to death in Israel is automatically granted an appeal, which in Demjanjuk’s case yielded a very surprising result. In the course of the protracted legal proceeding before the Supreme Court, Israeli prosecutors found evidence which cast serious doubt on Demjanjuk’s identification as “Ivan Grozny.” According to the testimony of thirty Treblinka guards who were prosecuted and executed in the Ukraine for crimes in that death camp, the operator of the gas chamber was Ivan Marchenko and he had a very prominent scar on his cheek, which Demjanjuk clearly did not have.
In the light of this evidence, it was clear that more than a reasonable doubt had been created regarding the verdict of the district court. Under these circumstances, the Israeli Supreme Court convicted Demjanjuk of membership in a Nazi organization, the punishment for which was seven years’ imprisonment, which he had already served. While the court expressed its unequivocal conviction that he had participated in the Final Solution, it cancelled his conviction as “Ivan the Terrible,” and ordered him expelled from Israel. Before the expulsion could take place, several groups including the Wiesenthal Center challenged the verdict, demanding that Demjanjuk be retried for his role at Sobibor, but all these petitions were rejected by the Supreme Court.
In 1993, Demjanjuk returned to the United States, where he was able in 1998 to regain his American citizenship after his lawyers proved that a document which could have helped in his defense was never made available to them. Despite this initial victory, to OSI’s credit, it refused to give up on the case and in 1999, it filed a civil complaint against Demjanjuk for immigration violations, this time based on his service in Sobibor. In 2002, he was again stripped of his American citizenship and in 2005 Demjanjuk was ordered deported from the United States. It was only in May 2009, however, that he exhausted all his legal appeals, paving the way for his deportation to Germany, where he is currently awaiting trial for his role in the mass murder of 29,000 Jews killed at Sobibor from March to September 1943, while Ivan Demjanjuk served there as an armed guard. Perhaps at long last, justice will finally be achieved in this case.