The terrible Ivan is an American once more. Last month, a federal judge in Cleveland restored the US citizenship of John (Ivan) Demjanjuk, the former Nazi guard who escaped execution in 1993, when the Supreme Court of Israel freed him on a technicality. The long Demjanjuk saga thus ends in a gross travesty of justice. The sadistic thug who stuffed human beings into gas chambers is free to live happily ever after.
Ivan Demjanjuk's identity card, issued by the Nazi SS during World War II.
His supporters, many of whom are Holocaust deniers, have long proclaimed his innocence. Columnist-politician Pat Buchanan compared him to the women hanged by "the Salem judges." Jerome Brentar, chief fund-raiser of the Demjanjuk Defense Committee, accused the Jews of fomenting "a show trial," in which "the victims enjoy Israeli justice — the same justice that Jesus Christ enjoyed." On the day Demjanjuk's denaturalization trial opened in Cleveland's federal court in 1981, demonstrators showed up with signs proclaiming, "Holocaust is a Hoax" and "Six Million Lies."
But nothing can erase the mountain of evidence that proves Demjanjuk's guilt.
He was a soldier in the Red Army until May 1942, when he was captured by the Germans during a battle in the Crimea. Rather than spend the rest of the war as a Soviet POW, he switched sides, volunteering like many other Ukrainians to become a Nazi wachmann — an SS-trained concentration camp guard. He trained in the camp at Trawniki, where he was issued ID card No. 1393 and where his blood type was tattooed near his left armpit. The ID card still exists, its authenticity verified by every court in which Demjanjuk appeared. The tattoo is gone, but there is a scar where it used to be.
At Trawniki, Demjanjuk was taught, to quote the Israeli Supreme Court, "every stage of the extermination process." He learned to round up Jews in the ghettos, to transport them to the camps, to whip and club them into the gas chambers, to operate the gas, and to shoot the sick or elderly too weak to walk.
Wachmanner trained at Trawniki were assigned to the Nazi death camps at Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belzec. These were camps for killing only, not for concentration or slave labor. In these places Jews were murdered at once — robbed, stripped, and gassed as soon as they arrived. In all of it, Demjanjuk took part.
There is no doubt that he helped commit mass murder in Sobibor, where 250,000 Jews were wiped out in 1942-43. His Trawniki ID card notes that he was posted to Sobibor on March 27, 1943. And he was remembered specifically in a 1979 deposition by one of his fellow guards, Ignatz Danilchenko:
"From what Demjanjuk said, I know that like all of us who served in Sobibor, he . . . participated in the mass killing of Jews. I also participated in the crime."
Nor is there any doubt that Demjanjuk committed mass murder in Treblinka, where more than 800,000 Jews were slaughtered. Eighteen Treblinka survivors picked him out of a photo lineup in 1975 — a lineup compiled by investigators seeking evidence on a different Nazi altogether! Seven eyewitnesses eventually testified in court, some of them sobbing as they recalled Ivan's cruelties.
"Every time transports came," Elijahu Rosenberg testified in the Ohio proceedings, "Ivan had a pipe, sword, and whip, and he tortured the people before they entered the gas chambers. Especially the women. He cut pieces between their legs."
The defense lawyer asked: "Mr. Rosenberg, were you ever in a position to look into Ivan's eyes?" Answered Rosenberg: "To my great sorrow, constantly."
Every court that heard the testimony of Treblinka eyewitnesses found it compelling — as convincing as the documentary evidence that placed him at Trawniki and Sobibor as well. Such rock-hard proof of Demjanjuk's Nazi past led the US courts to revoke his citizenship, and subsequently led the Israeli trial court to sentence him to death for his crimes.
So why did Israel's Supreme Court ultimately set him free? Not because of any weakness in the prosecutors' case, but because of the sudden appearance, after the trial ended, of a batch of mysterious statements from long-dead Treblinka wachmanner. These depositions, unearthed in a Kiev archive, suggested that the monster known as Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka might have been named Marchenko — not Demjanjuk.
No one knew if these old statements were true, or under what circumstances they had been made, or even if the documents were authentic. In most courts, such "evidence" would be dismissed as raw hearsay.
But the Israeli court refused to convict Demjanjuk on any charge unless he were guilty of every charge beyond even a whisper — even an unreliable whisper — of doubt. And so despite his Nazi crimes, it turned him loose. It didn't even order a new trial.
Now the travesty has been compounded. US law bars former Nazis from becoming American citizens; it likewise bars immigrants who lie on their application. Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian sadist who volunteered to be a wachmann, fails on both counts. But he has been renaturalized anyway, once more the beneficiary of judges who balk at doing justice.
Is there a greater indecency? This terrible Ivan lives the good life, while the blood of his victims cries out from the ground. Once more Demjanjuk is an American citizen. His presence pollutes us all.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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