John Demjanjuk, convicted Nazi criminal, dies at 91 (WASHINGTON POST) By Joe Holley and Adam Bernstein 03/17/12)
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John Demjanjuk, a native Ukrainian who became an Ohio autoworker
after World War II and the target of a decades-long international
effort to prove that he participated in genocide as a guard at Nazi
prison camps, was found dead March 17 in Bad Feilnbach in southern
Germany. He was 91.
Martin Winkler, a spokesman for the Bavarian police, confirmed that
Mr. Demjanjuk was found dead early Saturday in his room in a nursing
home. The cause of death was being investigated, he said. The
Associated Press quoted Mr. Demjanjuk’s attorney as saying he had
myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease of the bone marrow and blood.
In May, Mr. Demjanjuk was convicted of 28,060 counts of being an
accessory to murder at the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied
Poland. Although sentenced to five years in prison, he was freed
pending an appeal.
Mr. Demjanjuk (pronounced dem-YAHN-yuke) was twice sentenced to death
and then freed, and he was twice stripped of his U.S. citizenship. He
and his attorneys fought more than a dozen criminal cases and civil
suits — with trials in the United States, Israel and Germany — over
allegations that he had worked as a prison guard.
He maintained that war-crime accusations against him were a matter of
mistaken identity. He had been a soldier in the Soviet army, and he
contended that after he was captured by the Germans, he was a
prisoner of war and not a guard at a Nazi death camp.
U.S. Justice Department officials made several attempts to deport him
because of allegations that he had lied about his wartime activities
on his immigration papers. He was deported to Germany in May 2009
after losing a court battle and was charged by law enforcement
officials there with 27,900 counts of being an accessory to murder as
a prison guard at Sobibor. In June 2010, the court raised the number
In May 2011, a German court found Mr. Demjanjuk guilty and sentenced
him to five years in prison. In reading his sentence, the presiding
judge, Ralph Alt, said that no guard at Sobibor could have avoided
participating in the killing and that every guard “knew he was part
of an organization with no other purpose but mass murder.”
The Demjanjuk case represented one of the last major efforts by the
Office of Special Investigations, a Justice Department unit formed in
1979, to identify, investigate and take legal action against
suspected Nazi war criminals who resided in the United States, said
department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney.
Mr. Demjanjuk’s legal ordeal began in the late 1970s, when the U.S.
Immigration and Naturalization Service charged him with lying on his
application form and began deportation hearings to strip him of his
The case against Mr. Demjanjuk, a retired Ford autoworker, first drew
international attention in 1986, when he was extradited to Israel for
the first war-crimes trial there since the prosecution of Adolf
Eichmann a quarter-century earlier. Eichmann, often called the
architect of the “final solution” — the Nazis’ plan to exterminate
European Jews — was hanged as a war criminal in 1962.
Mr. Demjanjuk’s trial in Israel included testimony from several
Holocaust survivors who insisted that he was “Ivan the Terrible,” a
sadistic gas-chamber operator at the Nazi extermination camp of
Treblinka in Poland. More than 800,000 prisoners are reported to have
died at Treblinka.
In 1988, Mr. Demjanjuk was convicted of genocide and crimes against
humanity and was sentenced to hang.
In 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered his release based on newly
obtained documents from former Soviet-bloc countries. The documents
suggested that Mr. Demjanjuk might have been a Nazi guard but that
Ivan the Terrible was probably a man named Ivan Marchenko. Prison
workers were building Mr. Demjanjuk’s gallows when the order came to
Mr. Demjanjuk lost his U.S. citizenship in 1981, regained it in 1998
and lost it again in 2002, when the Office of Special Investigations
brought a case based on war documents linking him to several Nazi
concentration camps other than Treblinka. The new case did not allege
that he was Ivan the Terrible.
As the years passed and memories faded, and as victims and
perpetrators died, Nazi hunters came to regard Mr. Demjanjuk as one
of their most important remaining targets.
His supporters, many of them in the Ukrainian-American community,
considered him a martyr. They raised millions of dollars for his
defense, and neighbors voiced support for the man they knew as a
kindly grandfather who kept his lawn neatly trimmed.
To others, he was a monster.
“If someone worked at a Ford plant, they made cars for a living,”
Neal Sher, a former OSI head, told the Los Angeles Times. “If someone
worked at Sobibor, they killed Jews for a living.”
Ivan Demjanjuk was born April 3, 1920, in the Ukrainian village of
Dubovi Makharyntsi, then part of the Soviet Union. He grew up amid
the poverty and political chaos that characterized Ukraine between
the first and second world wars. During the famine that afflicted
Ukraine in 1932 and ’33, his family moved to a collective farm
“My relatives were forced to eat birds, mice, rats — even our pet
cat,” he once said. “People were lying dead in their homes, in the
streets. Bodies were bloated by the rays of the sun. No one took them
to be buried.”
In 1938, Mr. Demjanjuk joined the Soviet youth organization Komsomol,
and a year later, he was drafted into the Soviet army. In June 1941,
the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and he was wounded in fighting
He was wounded a second time in 1942, and he ended up in a Nazi
forced-labor camp. Decades later, he testified that conditions were
so bad in Nazi prisoner-of-war camps, “I would have sold my soul for
a loaf of bread.”
The murky events of the next three years were at the core of the
controversy that consumed the final decades of Mr. Demjanjuk’s life.
He insisted that he was imprisoned at a labor camp near Chelm,
Poland, and that in the final year of the war, he joined the army of
an anti-Stalinist Russian general, Andrei A. Vlasov. The Vlasov army
was made up mostly of Ukrainian soldiers who allied themselves with
the Nazis with the goal of defeating the Soviet Union and liberating
Ukraine. After the war, the Soviets executed Vlasov for treason.
Mr. Demjanjuk, like many of Vlasov’s men, was sent to a displaced-
persons camp, where he remained for seven years. He met and married a
Ukrainian woman, Vera Kowlowa, in the camp, and the couple immigrated
to the United States in 1952.
Sweeney, the OSI spokeswoman, said documents and testimony from those
who served with Mr. Demjanjuk during the war support the following
In mid-1942, Mr. Demjanjuk joined a force of non-German Nazi
auxiliaries whose mission was to exterminate Jews in eastern Poland.
He became an armed guard of civilian prisoners at the Majdanek
concentration camp in eastern Poland, at Sobibor and at the
Flossenburg concentration camp in Germany.
After the war, Mr. Demjanjuk lived in a Cleveland suburb and worked
at a Ford assembly plant for nearly 30 years. He attended a Ukrainian
Orthodox church and helped his wife raise their three children. He
became a U.S. citizen in 1958.
Survivors include his wife; three children, John Demjanjuk Jr., Lydia
Maday and Irene Nishnic; seven grandchildren; and two great-
Addressing a three-judge panel in Israel in 1987, Mr. Demjanjuk said
he had never killed anyone.
“I couldn’t even kill a chicken,” he said. “My wife had to do it.”
Staff writer Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report from Berlin.
(© 2010 The Washington Post Company 03/17/12)
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