x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Twisted history of John Demjanjuk

An Ukranian 89-year-old will go on trial in Germany tomorrow over his alleged role in the deaths of more than 27,000 Jews during the Second World War.

John Demjanjuk, pictured in an Israeli prison cell in 1993.
John Demjanjuk, pictured in an Israeli prison cell in 1993.

JERUSALEM // Once the most reviled figure in Israel, Yoram Sheftel looks like a man who misses the attention. At the attorney's office in Tel Aviv, photos of high-profile clients, including the Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky, adorn the wall. But it is for his impassioned defence of John Demjanjuk, an alleged Nazi war criminal, that he is best known. Mr Sheftel, 60, was loathed as the Jew who defended a Nazi. It would be years before people would greet him in the street.

"I was looked upon as the attorney of Satan," Mr Sheftel recalled. "But I knew right from the beginning that there was no credible evidence." Tried and convicted in April 1988 of being the notorious SS guard known as Ivan Grozny, or Ivan the Terrible, at Treblinka during the Second World War, Mr Demjanjuk was freed on appeal after it emerged the Israelis had the wrong man. Embarrassed, Israel released him in 1993 - after seven years in jail - and put him on a plane back to his home in Ohio in the United States.

Now, 16 years after his release, The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, 89, is to be put on trial again, this time in Munich, Germany. Cleared of serving at Treblinka, he stands accused of being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews in 1943 at the Sobibor death camp in Poland during the Second World War. The trial, which starts tomorrow, will probably mark the last major Nazi war crimes hearing. It will rely on the testimony of 23 witnesses - all of them dead - and documents such as his identity card and camp rosters.

For many Israelis, it is the culmination of their long quest for justice and vengeance. For others, it marks the conclusion of a judicial process that has been flawed since its inception in the 1970s. And Mr Sheftel is not sure he cares."I finished my Demjanjuk case phase. I devoted six-and-a-half years of my life to it. Enough is enough," he said. Mr Sheftel has suffered more than most. Not long before the appeal was scheduled to start, a Holocaust survivor threw acid in his face as he attended the funeral of a lawyer who had committed suicide shortly before he was due to take a seat next to Mr Sheftel on the defence.

Mr Sheftel's sight was saved, and the appeal postponed. In the interim, the Soviet Union collapsed, and evidence surfaced in Moscow that identified Ivan the Terrible as one Ivan Marchenko. In 1993, Mr Demjanjuk was acquitted, but not exonerated. Israeli authorities remained convinced that he had been an accessory in the Final Solution - not as Ivan the Terrible, but as a lesser Wachmann, an SS guard.

"This was the proper course for judges who cannot examine the heart and the mind, but have only what their eyes see and read," Meir Shamgar, presiding judge of the appeal, told the court according to media reports. "The matter is closed, but not complete." Memories of the case are still fresh in many people's minds. Israelis, among them children of Holocaust survivors, were transfixed by the trial, which revisited the events of nearly half a decade before in a way not seen since the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the "architect" of Hitler's Final Solution, in the early 1960s.

Mr Demjanjuk, who first came to the attention of US investigators in 1977, was sent to Israel from the United States for trial in February 1986. The trial opened a year later in Jerusalem. Dalia Dorner, 75, one of the three-judge panel that tried Mr Demjanjuk, recalled that her husband, a survivor of Auschwitz, implored her not to try the case, fearing the painful memories it would evoke. "He didn't want me to bring this home," she said. "I tried not to speak about it. The boys watched me on TV, and said, 'You look terrible, Mother'."

Survivor after survivor recounted the horrors of Treblinka, where 900,000 Jews perished. They focused on the actions of one particularly sadistic SS guard, a Ukrainian called Ivan, the Slavic version of John. According to witnesses, Ivan the Terrible, as he was called, took particular delight in hacking off women's breasts and chopping off prisoners' noses and ears. "When we heard evidence of the survivors, it was very hard," recalled Zvi Tal, 79, another of the judges from the original trial. "A tear appeared in your eye, and you were on TV, and a judge shouldn't be emotional."

The prosecution alleged that after Mr Demjanjuk was taken prisoner at the Battle of Kerch in 1942, he volunteered to train as a Wachmann. Many Ukrainians were said to have collaborated with the Germans, some of them to escape desperate camp conditions. The prosecution maintained that Mr Demjanjuk was sent to Trawniki for training. They claim he then went to Treblinka, where he was the gas chamber operator known as Ivan the Terrible. They produced an identity card in Mr Demjanjuk's name from Trawniki, released by the Soviets years before.

Actually, the card stated that Mr Demjanjuk was a guard at Sobibor, but several Treblinka survivors, who were interviewed in Israel as part of the preliminary US investigation into Mr Demjanjuk's past, identified the Ukrainian as the man they knew as Ivan the Terrible. "That's Ivan," said one survivor, Josef Czarny, pointing to Mr Demjanjuk's photo, media reported at the time. "My God, he lives!" Israeli investigators told the US authorities they must be mistaken about Sobibor, and said Mr Demjanjuk was actually at Treblinka.

(None of the Sobibor survivors questioned remembered Mr Demjanjuk.) Mr Demjanjuk denies that he was at Trawniki, Sobibor or Treblinka, and claims the Trawniki ID card was a Soviet forgery. In his version, he was a prisoner of war in a camp near Chelm in Poland until late 1943, when he was recruited into the anti-Communist "Vlasov" army and sent by the Nazis to Graz in Austria. But there are holes in his story. In his US immigration application in 1951, he lied about his service in the Red Army and said he was a farmer at Sobibor during the war. He later retracted this statement, saying that he had chosen the place at random from a map.

He also listed his mother's maiden name as Marchenko - the surname of the man identified as Ivan the Terrible - later saying he couldn't remember it, and had chosen a common Ukrainian name. (Mr Sheftel claims that the maiden name of Mr Demjanjuk's mother is actually Tabachuk.) He also bears the scars of a tattoo in his armpit that he scratched out. The prosecution alleged it was an SS tattoo, but Mr Demjanjuk claims he was branded by the Germans to indicate his blood type prior to joining the anti-Soviet force.

Mr Demjanjuk was also able to recollect few details of his time at Chelm, a prison camp where he claimed to have spent nearly 18 months. He provided a detailed account of his war experience up to that point. "He was a very simple man, a typical Ukrainian peasant, uneducated, hardly spoke English, could not write in English" despite three decades living in the United States, Mr Sheftel said. Soon after he was sentenced to death, the case unravelled. Soviet archives revealed testimony from more than 30 Soviet Treblinka guards, who identified Ivan the Terrible as Marchenko, and described him as dark haired with a scar on his neck. Mr Demjanjuk was blonde with no scar.

This time, German prosecutors will rely on the documentary evidence to press for a conviction. They will also rely on witness testimony, including that given by a deceased Soviet Trawniki guard, Ignat Danilchenko, in 1949 and 1979, who claimed to have seen Mr Demjanjuk push Jews into gas chambers at Sobibor. Mr Demjanjuk, said by his family to be in poor health, was arrested in April at his home in Ohio in preparation for his extradition to Germany. He had lived in the United States for years, but was stripped of his citizenship nearly a decade ago.

Critics have questioned why Mr Demjanjuk, a foreigner and a guard, should atone for the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. Documentary evidence may eventually place him at the death camps, but it cannot shed light on what he did. For some survivors, it is an irrelevance. "We can't always prove that someone is guilty, but there's a good statistical probability that he is," said Giselle Cycowicz, 82, a survivor of Auschwitz. "After 65 years, you cannot find absolute proof."

Mr Sheftel, an ardent Zionist who does little to endear himself to Holocaust survivors ("if there had been 1,000 Lanskys, there never would have been a Treblinka"), has remained convinced of Mr Demjanjuk's innocence throughout. Mr Sheftel argued that the first trial was tainted by flawed testimonies and accuses the US office of special investigations of fabricating evidence to ensure a conviction. Crucially, the OSI knew before the trial that Marchenko was their man, not Mr Demjanjuk, Mr Sheftel alleged.

"When the Soviets sent documents showing [Mr Demjanjuk] was not Ivan the Terrible, the OSI simply dumped them," Mr Sheftel said. "It was a clear-cut cover up." (A US appeal court ruled in 1993 that the OSI had displayed a "reckless disregard" for the truth, and that its misconduct amounted to "a fraud on the court".) That Mr Demjanjuk nearly hanged over a case of mistaken identity vindicated those who thought Israel was not the right jurisdiction for such a case. To others, it is to the Israeli Supreme Court's eternal credit that it released Mr Demjanjuk.

As the death sentence was read out, newspaper reports record that the gathered crowd broke into scattered applause. Others said the sentence was received in silence, and only after the judges left the chamber did some start to cheer. Mrs Dorner remembered it as this: "The crowd reacted in a not very correct manner. And [presiding judge] Dov Levin told them so. They clapped, it was terrible. "They were survivors, what could you do? They wanted vengeance."

And now? "I don't look for revenge," said Yitzhak Arad, 83, an expert witness in Mr Demjanjuk's trial who has written extensively about the death camps. "I do think there should be a warning to humanity that it should not happen again in the future." Years later, Dr Arad remains convinced of Mr Demjanjuk's guilt. "I am sure that Demjanjuk is the man Ivan the Terrible in Treblinka," Dr Arad said. "After he was deported from Israel - he just wanted to disappear."

Both Mr Tal and Mrs Dorner agree. "Now that he is being put on trial for Sobibor, I think that if he [is] convicted, there will be partly justice done," Mrs Dorner said. "I can't say I'm glad, but it's right to put him on trial." foreign.desk@thenational.ae