John Demjanjuk

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Demjanjuk (centre) being wrongly sentenced to death on 25 April 1988 in Jerusalem.

John Demjanjuk (born Ivan Demjanjuk in Ukraine; 3 April 1920 – 17 March 2012) was a retired auto worker who had emigrated to the United States in 1951. He was later accused of being a Holocaust perpetrator and became for many decades involved in a long series of legal proceedings, and was at one point even sentenced to death for alleged crimes he had not committed.

“Ivan the Terrible” accusations

Critics of the allegations against Demjanjuk have argued that the story originally originated as a Soviet fabrication. The Soviet Union (together with pro-Soviet individuals in the United States) tried to discredit Ukrainian nationalism by methods such as repeated false allegations of participation by Ukrainians in "fascist" war crimes. In 1975, a pro-Soviet journalist handed over a list to the US authorities that contained 70 names of alleged National Socialist collaborators of Ukrainian origin, among which also appeared the name of John Demjanjuk. The accusation included a witness statement according to which Demjanjuk had served as a guard at several concentration camps as well as a facsimile of an identity card, which allegedly proved Demjanjuk as being a guard at several camps. An investigation started. Witnesses appeared in Israel, who claimed to recognize Demjanjuk as “Ivan the Terrible”, a guard at Treblinka.[1]

Demjanjuk was deprived of his U.S. citizenship in 1984 due to alleged false information he gave in his immigration papers, mainly on the basis of the alleged identity card, and he was extradited to Israel in 1986, despite Israel not having any formal right to demand such an extradition.[1]

Several investigations stated that the alleged identity card is a forgery that used an old photo of Demjanjuk from the year 1947, taken from the immigration documents in the USA and then retouched for the identity card. However, several agencies and authorities in Israel, Germany, and the United States tried to conceal this by using various methods, including trying to persuade a series of witnesses to testify in support of the authenticity.[1]

Furthermore, during the trial it emerged that the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses were unreliable, because they contradicted themselves or one another, or because the witnesses were apparently senile to the point that their testimonies were of no value at all. Nevertheless, Demjanjuk was sentenced to death in 1988.[1]

One example is Eliahu Rosenberg, who swore that John Demjanjuk was the one and the same as “Ivan the Terrible” – only for it to be found out that he had previously testified that “Ivan” had been killed during a prisoner uprising.[2]

It has been argued that one reason for the trial was that Israel (as occurred during the Eichmann trial) needed to gain worldwide shock and outrage over the suffering of the Jewish people, in part to deflect attention from the situation of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the Gaza Strip. However, the trial instead turned into a public relations disaster as a widespread movement protested the treatment of Demjanjuk.[1]

In 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the decision and Demjanjuk returned to the United States.

"The fate of the courageous defense lawyers during the show trial staged against Ivan Demjanjuk emphasizes the risks these jurists accept when defending what the public perceives as “devils”: just days before the start of Demjanjuk’s appeal trial, his first lawyer Dov Eitan fell – or was made to fall – to his death from the 20th floor of a high rise in Jerusalem. Only two days later Demjanjuk’s second lawyer Yoram Sheftel was attacked during Eitan’s funeral: someone threw acid into his face which almost made him blind (Sheftel 1994, pp. 243-263). It is therefore not surprising that most defense lawyers are not very eager to defend such clients effectively, if at all."[1]

The US Office of Special Investigations (OSI), a "Nazi-hunting" agency, was involved in the various accusations against Demjanjuk. The organization has been stated to have a personnel "which reads like a Who’s Who of Jewish Holocaust fanatics" and to cooperate closely with similar organizations in other countries, Israel, and the ADL.[1]

The Honorable Gilbert S. Merritt, Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, Chief Judge 1989-1996 had this to say about the OSI's handling of the Demjanjuk case: "Today we know that they — the OSI, the prosecution in the case and the State Department — lied through their teeth. Even then they knew without a doubt that Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible, but they hid the information from us. I am sorry that I did not have the information at the time. If I did, we would never have ruled in favor of his extradition to Israel." Merritt stated that what happened in his courtroom was: "nothing short of a witch hunt. In retrospect, it reminds me of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts 300 years ago. The prosecution, counseled by the OSI, presented documents and witnesses whose testimony was based on emotions and hysteria, but not hard evidence. To my regret, we believed them. This instance is a prime example of how justice can be distorted."[3]

Another criticism: "After spending five years on Israel’s death row, he was eventually exonerated when it emerged that the American Justice department had ‘fraudulently withheld evidence…to curry favour with Jewish organizations.’[29] The judges concluded that the Office for Special Investigation (a section of the Justice department especially set up to investigate Nazi war criminals) and the prosecutors had ‘acted with reckless disregard for the truth.’[30] A Treblinka Nazi identity card, supposedly his, was, quite simply, a forgery."[4]

Alleged persecution of Congressman James Traficant for supporting Demjanjuk

Congressman James Traficant championed the cause of Demjanjuk. Michael Collins Piper argued that Traficant was therefore, as one cause, persecuted by the Justice Department, the Israel lobby, and the mass media and even wrongly convicted. "Ultimately, with Traficant sidelined in his own federal trial, they went after Demjanjuk again on "new" charges and restarted the process of seeking to deport the beleaguered old man."[5]

Later accusations

"In 1993, as the case against Demjanjuk was falling apart, an Israeli prosecutor close to the case acknowledged a political motive for continuing the campaign. "So the important thing now is at least to prove that Demjanjuk was part of the Nazi extermination machine… otherwise… we will be making a great contribution to the new world-wide movement of those who deny the Holocaust took place.""[6]

In 2004, Demjanjuk's citizenship was revoked again and he was extradited in 2009 to Germany, now to instead face trial for alleged crimes at Sobibor, with the alleged identity card again being used as evidence.[1]

A 2010 Esquire magazine article written and researched by Scott Raab questioned the whole idea of Demjanjuk's trial, crime, and punishment, pointing out many of the absurdities of this particular case, stating specifically "Worse, Demjanjuk is essentially on trial not for anything he did, but simply for being at Sobibor. No specific criminal acts need be alleged, much less proved. Page through transcripts of previous Nazi trials and you'll find a rigorous focus on particulars, because that is what should be required to convict a defendant. No one in any such trial ever was convicted simply on the basis of being present at the scene."[7]

On 12 May 2011, aged 91, Demjanjuk was convicted as an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews and sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed but died on 17 March 2012 before he could be tried, making him legally innocent under German law.

On 12 April 2011, a 1985 FBI report that had been marked secret for the previous 25 years was declassified and found by reporters of the Associated Press News Media in the National Archives. It brought to light a judgement that the ID card that had been provided by a Soviet source to the US was "quite likely fabricated" evidence.[8]

The likelihood of mistaken identity was increased when on 11 June 2011, the Kyiv Post reported that in his home village, records show that two Ivan Demjanjuks served in the Soviet Red Army in WW II. Reportedly, one Ivan Andriyevych Demjanjuk committed suicide in 1971, after he learned that Soviet KGB agents had come to question him. According to a Red Army veteran and witness, in the early 1980s, the KGB took all of John Demjanjuk’s family photos and letters he had written to his mother and sister, who remained in the village after the war.[9]

The Demjanjuk case as a "door opener" for convicting despite no evidence of committing any specific crime

Though many others accused of "Nazi" crimes had been convicted before Demjanjuk in Germany, in this case there was no evidence that Demjanjuk had committed a specific crime. His prosecution was based on the theory that if Demjanjuk was at the camp, he was a participant in the killing — the first time such a legal argument has been made in German courts. This could cause numerous cases that have been previously investigated but shelved to now be reopened. A former federal prosecutor stated that "This case is a door opener."[10]

On 6 April 2013, the German "Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes" announced it would charge 50 former guards at Auschwitz concentration camp with accessory to murder. The investigation lacked direct witnesses, but the agency hoped that available written records would suffice in court, as was the case with Demjanjuk.[11]


Although the Federal Crimes Bureau (BKA) warned the Israelis that the supposed SS employment identity card of Ivan Demjanjuk was forged, the former Ukrainian is supposed to be executed.[…] The single written piece of evidence in this trial, an SS employment identity card of Demjanjuk made available by the Soviet Union, is a forgery, according to an evaluation by experts of the Federal Crimes Bureau in Wiesbaden. Even more: this was already known to the Israeli authorities before the beginning of the trial in February 1987.[…]

Twenty-one former guards from Treblinka have declared in proceedings, independently from one another, that a Ukrainian by the name of Ivan Marchenko had been Ivan the Terrible – and not Ivan Demjanjuk.

The Chief Prosecutor in Jerusalem, State Attorney Michael Shadek, was not concerned by the doubts raised about his evidence: “That Demjanjuk killed, is a certainty to me – whether at Treblinka, or Sobibór, or somewhere else.” As to the BKA’s suspicion of forgery, he now explains to STERN: “We are supported by our own expert opinions and consider them as convincing as ever.

Stern, 5 March 1992.[1]
German federal authorities conceal knowledge about forged evidence […] Our paper has already […] reported about an expert report by historian Dieter Lehner […], in which this “document” is exposed as a complete forgery. One example: the identity card photo comes from the files of the U.S. immigration authorities and was first taken in 1947 (!) […] In the meantime, it has turned out that federal authorities are also […] entangled in the affair. For it is clear that for the past five years, the highest political authorities have seen to it that the truth […] did not reach the public. […] When the expert report of the Crimes Bureau reportedly became well known, the Bonn Office of the Chancellor be- came involved in the matter. Representatives of the Demjanjuk defense were given the runaround. The existence of the BKA expert report was concealed from them. Although the Chancellor’s office knew the report by Lehner and the BKA, a false trail was laid: not the identity card was said to have been examined by the BKA, but only the photo.[…] Yet even this statement is false. […] The Federal Crimes Bureau was compelled to publicly keep silent. A BKA Department Chief made a file memo: “Professional scruples obviously had to be subordinated to political aspects.
Munchner Merkur, 26 March 1992.[1]
The Demjanjuk Case is, after all, not different from other similar trials which ended in sentences of death or incarceration, since the type and content of the witness testimonies, including internal and external contradictions and technical impossibilities, had not, of course, made their first appearance at the Demjanjuk proceedings, as we will discover later. It was only that during this trial they were successfully challenged for the first time. But if it was determined that all witnesses gave false testimony, which led to a misjudgment, then would not complaints have to be lodged against the false witnesses? And would not other trials, in which the same witnesses appeared or in which testimonies of similar questionable content were given – be it in Israel, in Germany, or in Poland – have to be reopened and retried? But nothing of the sort occurred. The cloak of silence was simply spread over this embarrassing matter.
Lectures on the Holocaust—Controversial Issues Cross Examined.[1]

See also

External links

Article archives


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Holocaust Handbooks, Volume 15: Germar Rudolf: Lectures on the Holocaust—Controversial Issues Cross Examined 2nd, revised and corrected edition.
  2. Eliahu Rosenberg's 1947 deposition on Treblinka
  3. Melman, Yossi. News article dated November 14, 1997. "Who Lied About Demjanjuk?," Ha'aretz Israeli News,
  4. Freedom, Democracy and ‘The Conquering of Evil’
  5. Piper, Michael (2005). Target: Traficant : the outrageous inside story of how the Justice Department, the Israeli lobby and the American mass media conspired to set up and take down Congressman Jim Traficant. Washington, D.C: American Free Press. ISBN 0981808611. ISBN 978-0981808611
  6. Injustice, Double Standards, and Ulterior Agendas
  7. "John Demjanjuk: The Last Nazi". Esquire, 11 August 2010.
  8. “AP Exclusive: FBI thought Demjanjuk evidence faked,” Associated Press, 12 April 2011
  9. Feduschak, Natalia A. News article in Kyiv Post, dated 11 June 2011. Case of Mistaken Identity?
  10. Former US citizen convicted in Nazi camp deaths
  11. 50 Alleged Auschwitz Guards Face Jail in Germany, RIA Novosti (6 April 2013)
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