George Jonas: The man who wasn’t John Demjanjuk (NATIONAL POST COMMENT) 03/24/12)
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A news item on my computer screen reports that John Demjanjuk, a
convicted war criminal, passed away at age of 91 in a German nursing
home, still protesting his innocence. I look at a letter in my
archives I wrote to my literary agent, the late Stanley Colbert, 25
In the fall of 1987, John Demjanjuk was a retired auto worker from
Cleveland, on trial for his life. A man of Ukrainian birth who
settled in America after the war, Demjanjuk had been stripped of his
American citizenship and extradited to Israel in 1986 to face charges
of having been “Ivan the Terrible,” a guard of legendary brutality at
the infamous Nazi death camp of Treblinka.
As I wrote to Colbert, who was being queried by a publisher, some of
the collaborators Hitler used to murder millions in Nazi-occupied
Europe did escape after the war, so there was no reason why Ivan the
Terrible couldn’t be a retired autoworker in Cleveland named John
I just didn’t think he was.
My doubts weren’t due to reservations about prosecuting war crimes. I
had none, as long as they were prosecuted fairly, under the same
rules as all others. I didn’t think the passage of time diminished
the need for bringing criminals to justice, but neither did I think
the enormity of a crime justified railroading suspects, relaxing
evidentiary rules or reducing procedural protections.
In the Demjanjuk case, the initial charges were of dubious
provenance — they were, in essence, KGB tips — which should have made
the prosecutors more suspicious than they seemed to be. But
prosecutors are often arrogant and cocksure of their hand, and this
wasn’t why I thought Nazi hunters were barking up the wrong tree.
When I interviewed Demjanjuk’s son-in-law (as he then was), Ed
Nishnic described the retired autoworker as a likeable, ordinary,
hard-working family man. This would have been in complete contrast
with the gruesome monster of Treblinka, who appeared ghoulish even by
the standards of a Nazi death camp. But human beings can undergo
astounding changes in response to their environment — at least, up to
“Is your father-in-law a hard drinker?” I asked Nishnic.
“Not at all,” he replied.
Nishnic laughed. “Hell, no,” he said. “John drinks — well, you know,
like everybody else. A few beers, watching the game, Saturday or
“Ivan the Terrible” didn’t drink like everybody else. He drank like a
fish. Treblinka’s monster was an alcoholic. All witnesses describe
him as a hopeless, round-the-clock, falling-down drunk. He was a
functioning alcoholic, given that his function was to beat, torture,
taunt and kill prisoners in a Nazi camp, but he never drew a sober
Alcoholics like Ivan don’t become social drinkers. Most stay
alcoholics — but the few who cure themselves become teetotalers.
Never touching the stuff is possible. Social drinking isn’t.
To me, the beers he quaffed after a ballgame indicated far more
convincingly that John Demjanjuk wasn’t “Ivan the Terrible” than any
other piece of evidence. But it was eyewitness identifications over a
distance of 40 years, or documents whose authenticity could never be
determined beyond a reasonable doubt, that occupied a special
tribunal in Jerusalem between the fall of 1986 and the spring of
1988, after which a panel of three judges found the Cleveland
autoworker guilty of all charges and sentenced him to death by
Had he been Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka, he would have richly
deserved it, but I didn’t think he was, and in the end neither did
the Israeli Supreme Court. In 1993, a five-member panel allowed
Demjanjuk’s appeal. The main reason was the collapse of the Soviet
Union in 1991, which made more evidence available about the real
Ivan’s identity. It appeared he was one Ivan Marchenko, a Soviet
soldier of Ukrainian extraction who’d been captured by the Germans.
The old Soviets, of course, would have sat on this, watching with
glee as Demjanjuk swung.
Israel could have prosecuted Demjanjuk for being an ordinary guard in
some other Nazi camp, as he may have been, but the attoney-general
had no interest in small fry and released him in 1993. In the same
year, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, essentially,
that the Soviets were not alone in sitting on exculpatory evidence.
By failing to disclose evidence that would have indicated that their
trophy fish (Demjanjuk) wasn’t Moby Dick but a minnow, the intrepid
Nazi hunters of the Office of Special investigations along with U.S.
federal prosecutors committed fraud on the court. Then, in 1998, a
federal court ruled that Demjanjuk’s U.S. citizenship could be
From there, though, things went downhill for Demjanjuk again. In
1999, the U.S. Justice Department filed a new complaint against him,
this time for having been, not Ivan the Terrible, as they had urged
for the previous 20 years, but plain John Demjanjuk, a guard at the
infamous death camps of Sobibor and Majdanek in German-occupied
Could it have been true? Yes. When captured by the Germans, many Red
Army soldiers “volunteered” to serve the invaders in various
capacities to increase the chances of their own survival. Not very
heroic, but let those who know for sure they wouldn’t have done it
cast the first stone.
Germany, being such a moral bastion, stepped up to the plate. It
offered to prosecute people whose country it invaded in 1941 for
accepting Germany’s offer they couldn’t refuse. And so it happened
that in 2009, Demjanjuk, 88, stripped of his American citizenship
again, was extradited to Germany, to be tried and eventually
convicted of not saying no to Germany, which now appears to be a
crime in that country. They know best why.
As Juvenal pointed out nearly 2,000 years ago, it’s difficult not to
write satire. (© 2012 National Post, a division of Postmedia Network
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