| 15Oct2009 | Scott Raab
Funny thing is, he was never a Nazi, nor Ivan the Terrible, nor even German. So why now is he standing trial in Munich as accessory to 27,900 Nazi murders? Is this one last blow struck for justice for the Holocaust? Or is it a farce?
[W.Z. Although a Demjanjuk hate-monger by the name of David Friedland
attacks this article as being over-sympathetic to John Demjanjuk, it is
possible that Scott Raab had an ulterior motive in writing it. Yoram
Sheftel, the lawyer for John Demjanjuk at his 1987 Jerusalem show
trial, clearly stated that he would not argue the "facts of the
Holocaust", such that he refused to call any German witnesses who might
contradict the politically correct version of the Holocaust. Similarly,
Mr. Raab writes his article against this politically correct backdrop
-- reinforcing the evil of the Germans and Ukrainians. As Marshall
McLuhan said: "The medium is the MESSAGE".]
Were we not speaking of the Holocaust — Shoah, the Greatest Crime Ever Perpetrated, a Darkness Inexplicable, Pure Evil Incarnate — it would be funny.
Because it is the Holocaust, however, it is hilarious: No greater monster left alive, John Demjanjuk sits where Hitler once sat — in a cell in Munich's Stadelheim prison — waiting for his lunch, and for justice to be done to him again.
Again. As the dwindling few real-life Nazis march day by day to hell, as their numbers shrink and our remembrance fades, the faceless face on atrocity's Most Wanted poster is again — again — this recycled Ukrainian peasant, now eighty-nine years old.
Lunch eventually will come. As for justice, who knows when or what that will be. Justice took its time last time, seven years in all, dawdling till the gallows were built; Demjanjuk heard the work crew daily, hammering the planks. But there, at least — in, of all places, Israel — his jailers brought fresh vegetables, and tins of mystery meat, and let him thrust his thick arms through the bars of his cell and fix himself supper on a hot plate.
From those Jews — after he was found guilty of being one of two men who ran the gas chambers at Treblinka, where nearly a million Jews were killed — from them, he got a civilized evening meal. [W.Z. Mr. Demjanjuk was never in Treblinka.]
From these Germans — who have now charged him with being a mere accessory to the murder of a mere 27,900 Jews at Sobibor, a different extermination camp — what does he get for dinner? [W.Z. Mr. Demjanjuk denies ever being in Sobibor.]
Here, presumed innocent, he gets bread and cheese at 3:00 P.M., and so to bed.
Historians generally agree that World War II claimed roughly sixty million lives, including roughly forty million civilians, roughly six million of whom were Jews butchered by the Nazis. Roughly.
For Jews, the wound inflicted by the Nazis will never heal. Our number is too small: Six million was two thirds of all the Jews alive in Europe then, half of all the Jews alive in all the world today. [W.Z. Mr. Raab does not agree with "revisionists", who question the Six Million figure.]
Their loss was — is — irretrievable.
Funny thing, though: This story is not about the Jews. This story is larger than that.
This story is about truth, justice, and John Demjanjuk. [W.Z. It is also about OSI mendacity.]
Who was a Ukrainian farm boy and a Red Army conscript.
Who survived famine and war.
Who took a boat from Germany and landed in America in 1952.
Who lived in Cleveland quietly for twenty-five more years.
Who first came to the attention of American Nazi hunters in the mid-1970s. [W.Z. Via a Soviet anti-Ukrainian publication.]
Who was stripped of citizenship and shipped to Israel [W.Z. The OSI perpetrated prosecutorial misconduct constituting fraud on the court in both the 1981 denaturalization and the 1986 extradition proceedings.] to face his accusers — brought to justice onstage in a concert hall converted into a courtroom for a yearlong trial broadcast on Israeli television and radio, meant to remind the younger Jews never to forget the evil done to them — and heard the survivors, in simultaneous translation, identify him across all the years and miles as the Ukrainian savage so bloodthirsty, so unforgettably depraved — with a whip or a sword or a drill, it was his pleasure to maim Jews only a few moments away from being gassed — that inmates called him Ivan Grozny: Ivan the Terrible.
[W.Z. On Nov. 14, 1979 Norman Moscowitz, Bernard Dougherty, George Garand and Gerard Charig(?) interviewed Otto Horn in Germany asking him to identify Mr. Demjanjuk. Both Garand and Dougherty wrote memoranda describing the interview and indicating that Horn had failed to properly identify Mr. Demjanjuk until after some "coaching". In the 1981 denaturalization trial the prosecution hid these memoranda and claimed that Mr. Horn had properly identified Mr. Demjanjuk. In 1986 both Garand and Dougherty wrote memoranda for the Israeli authorities significantly different from their original versions. The issue is not whether a certain photograph was or was not visible to Horn during the identification procedures as Judge Wiseman implies. The issue is that a subsequent videotaped interrogation and identification procedure which was presented at the denaturalization trial was a sham. The issue is that Norman Moscowitz deliberately suborned perjury from Otto Horn during this trial. The issue is that Garand and Dougherty wrote false memoranda knowing full well that these contradicted their original ones.]
[W.Z. It is highly significant that in the original report of the Nov. 14, 1979 meeting Mr. Horn had described "Ivan" as having dark hair and " .... never hurt anyone...". This did not come out in the 1981 denaturalization trial at all. Mr. Moscowitz, who was the prosecutor, must have been aware of this discrepancy. In their 1986 deposition, Horn is reported to have said that "Ivan killed, cut... etc. (see also section IV.C.1 below.)]
[W.Z. Secondly, Judge Wiseman studiously ignores an even more important aspect of the issue. Messrs. Garand and Dougherty both wrote affidavits in 1986 which differ strikingly from their 1979 reports. Horn's physical description of "Ivan", given prior to having been shown photographs in 1979, was omitted from the affidavits. The description did not match Demjanjuk. The fact Horn selected at least two other people (not Demjanjuk) is also missing from the later reports. Horn's statement that he had never seen "Ivan beating, shooting, or otherwise abusing any Treblinka prisoner" was changed, in 1986, to read "Ivan had a reputation for viciousness...using a knife to cut the ears off of victims." Neither Dougherty nor Garand recorded Exhibit numbers of photographs selected by Horn in the 1979 reports. Significantly, the 1986 affidavits have Dougherty listing photographs 2-C and 3-E, while Garand wrote 2-F and 3-E.]
Who has spent thirty-three years now insisting he had nothing — nothing — to do with the Holocaust: that he was never a Nazi death-camp guard; that he was simply and only a Red Army prisoner of war enslaved by the Nazis as a farm laborer; that he is a victim of mistaken identity, of a Communist plot hatched by the KGB; that he would not, could not, hurt a rabbit, much less a fellow human.
Who was put on a plane in May and carried back to Germany to face his accusers, again, placed under arrest in Munich by — funny thing — the righteous progeny of Hitler-loving burghers who did nothing as Jewry burned.
Who sits in jail gnawing German bread and cheese, awaiting truth and justice.
Demjanjuk didn't hang, of course. After five years alone on death row in Israel's Ayalon prison — where Adolf Eichmann, too, had sat, the desk jockey who saw to it that the trains groaning with doomed Jews ran on time, and who was strung up in 1962; Eichmann and Demjanjuk are the only men Israel has ever tried for the Nazi genocidal crimes — Demjanjuk presented evidence on appeal that another man, one Ivan Marchenko, was Ivan the Terrible, and that Israel was about to hang the wrong Ukrainian.
Funny thing: The Israeli Supreme Court decided to let Ivan Demjanjuk walk.
The horribly funny thing — not to the Israelis, many of whom had doubts about prosecuting Demjanjuk from the start — was that some of the evidence that led to his release in 1993 had come to light years before and was withheld from the Israelis by the American government — the Office of Special Investigations of the Department of Justice, the very same cadre of Nazi hunters who had urged Israel to charge him with being Ivan the Terrible. [W.Z. The OSI is, indeed, a criminal institution.]
Why? Because Ivan the Terrible was a trophy fish, and John Demjanjuk was small fry, and whatever doubt the OSI harbored about his true crimes — and the records show that some of its investigators there felt doubts galore — if the agency wanted to burnish its reputation and justify its budget, it needed a villain big and bad enough to convince the cautious Israelis to mount a show trial.
Funny thing: The strongest documentary evidence the OSI did give to Israel, an SS-issued ID card, clearly put Demjanjuk at Sobibor during the same time that Ivan the Terrible was at Treblinka. The three judges and the lawyers on both sides wrestled vainly with this inconvenience, but the Treblinka survivors' eyewitness testimony — sanctified, consecrated, beyond need of proof by virtue of their hideous suffering and lifelong grief — condemned John Demjanjuk to death.
But the kicker, the real punch line, was yet to come. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Israel, faced with dozens of affidavits from Treblinka guards identifying Ivan Marchenko as Ivan the Terrible, unanimously overturned Demjanjuk's death sentence, and also unanimously ruled that Israel could not retry him for crimes he may have committed at Sobibor — because he had not been extradited for Sobibor, because no Sobibor survivors could identify him, and because, as chief judge Meir Shamgar wrote, "The complete truth is not the prerogative of the human judge."
Funny thing, though: The OSI, even after being rebuked by the U. S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals for its "reckless disregard for the truth" in its pursuit of Demjanjuk, continued to hound him for lying on his emigration forms in 1952.
Again the OSI stripped him of his restored citizenship, but prosecuting him for war crimes was beyond American jurisprudence. Doing so required a willing helper — another country with an ax to grind.
Poland, home to Sobibor, passed. Ukraine, his land of birth, said ni. Eretz Yisroel had long since had its fill of Demjanjuk.
Which left the Germans, ja?
Ja. Deported in May — in Washington, D. C., OSI officials watched a live television feed of his U. S.-government chartered Gulfstream taking off from Cleveland, still fretting that somehow their tar baby would stay stuck in the States — Demjanjuk was greeted in Munich by TV cameras trailing his ambulance as he was driven from the airport to the prison and headlines hailing the return to German soil of Iwan der Schreckliche — Ivan the Terrible.
"We must remind this old man of what he did," wrote one newspaper columnist. "We owe it to the victims and ourselves — otherwise we would be a people without a memory."
Thomas Blatt, one of the few Sobibor survivors, told reporters, "I want to hear his testimony, for the sake of history — that's more important than any punishment he could receive."
Blatt, whose parents and brother were murdered at Sobibor, is eighty-two years old. He plans to come from California to be a witness at Demjanjuk's trial, to describe for the judges the horrors he saw, how the Ukrainians trained by the SS would roust and beat and herd the Jews from the train to the path that led to extermination. [W.Z. This is exactly the same scenario that the Jewish Nazi collaborators painted about Treblinka when they testified against Mr. Demjanjuk. And note that there is always reference to "Ukrainian" guards.]
Funny thing is, though, Blatt has no memory of Demjanjuk; no Sobibor survivor has ever been able to ID him.
"After sixty-six years I can't even remember my father's face," says Blatt. "But I'm certain that Demjanjuk was just like the other Ukrainian guards."
Funny thing: Among the witnesses against Demjanjuk in Munich will be OSI officials, who will come now with straight faces to swear that in 1943, from March to October, the man they swore was at the same time Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka was in fact no more or less than another faceless face among the Ukrainian Wachmänner at Sobibor.
Unready to see humor in the ashpit of Europe's Jewry? If so, I sympathize — I am a Jew, with family on both sides whose souls rose in that smoke — but I have little to say to those who can't tell justice from vengeance, who believe that ends justify means, or who would mistake laughter at this farcical Nazi hunt for dishonoring the dead or making lies of history. [W.Z. It is the OSI and the Holocaust industry that is dishonoring the dead.]
But funny is funny, even when nourished in the soil of horror and delivered deadpan.
Take Hans-Joachim Lutz, for instance. Dr. Lutz, a trim and boyish forty-year-old wearing a crisp white shirt and a blue tie, will prosecute Demjanjuk in court this fall, and so it was his task to calculate the precise number of murders — 27,900 — to which, he will argue, Demjanjuk was accessory.
Lutz, it turns out, cut the Ukrainian a discount off the top.
"First we counted all the people on the transports, and there were 29,579," says Lutz. The transport lists Lutz worked with represent shipments of Jews to Sobibor from the Netherlands over the six months of 1943 when Demjanjuk is alleged to have worked there.
"We made it a little bit less," Lutz explains, "because we don't know if some died on the transport, or stayed alive and died after Demjanjuk left Sobibor."
So you rounded off?
"I rounded off. I'll show it to you."
From a bookcase shelf, Dr. Lutz removes a thick binder, opens it to the page he wants me to see, and places it on the table. Each row of figures is perfectly aligned, side by side, and sure enough, in every case he has rounded down.
If Demjanjuk is found guilty, I ask, what punishment will you seek?
"It's difficult, because he was seven years in jail in Israel, and this we have to count for something. So I think he will get seven years maximum — but it could be only two years or something like that."
And if not guilty?
"Then he will be free."
We both smile. Lutz laughs drily. Demjanjuk — old, broke, and stateless — will be free to go nowhere, yes?
"He has to stay in Germany."
Supported by the state?
In a nursing home?
"I think so, yes. Even if he is judged guilty, we cannot keep him in prison till the end of his life."
You have read Kafka?
"Yes, of course."
This seems to me like something out of Kafka.
"You are right."
Funny thing: Germany's legal system, like our own, presumes that someone accused of a crime is innocent, that the burden of proving guilt rests entirely upon the state, but in John Demjanjuk's case it makes no difference.
"The whole world is going to be looking," Lutz says, and this undoubtedly is true, because if there is a global cultural evergreen, it is Nazi Germany, where pornographic violence and unbounded hate were not only official state policy but dressed in shiny leather. Who can turn away?
But guilt and innocence, not to mention truth and justice, are beside the point in this case. The Germans did not bring Demjanjuk here to determine his guilt, but to assuage their own. Regardless of the verdict, the old man's fate will be the same: Demjanjuk they brought here to die.
Kafka surely would have understood the rounding down perfectly; he worked in the insurance business, and one of his tasks was to produce his company's annual report. But the numbers tend to wobble in the mind when you consider that each represents a human being, and I hope that in the course of rounding down, Dr. Lutz has not included any of the Jews on the one transport Sobibor received from Belz, the village of my father's father's family.
The odds are that my folks on that side were gassed at Belzec, another nearby death camp, but it is troubling, this matter of rounding down. Unless we are dealing in nothing but abstractions, and unless the point of passing judgment, for the first time in history, upon a foreigner in a German court for services rendered to Nazi Germany not so very long ago, is simply to prick the German conscience for what may have slipped its collective mind, and to slip in a history lesson for the younger members of German society — unless there are no better reasons for hauling Demjanjuk into court again, why fudge the numbers? To whom does this sort of accounting do justice?
Justice, like history, turns out to be exactly this: a series of roundings up and roundings down, numerical and otherwise, conducted by careful men, like Dr. Lutz, behind their desks.
During the Sobibor trials of 1965 — 66, Erich Fuchs, the SS man who helped build and test the gas chambers at Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka, testified that once the equipment at Sobibor was set up — the engine properly mounted and the connection secured from the exhaust pipe to the killing cell — a group of naked Jewish women was driven into the gas chamber by the Ukrainian auxiliaries to test the system.
"If my memory serves me right," Fuchs told the court, "about thirty to forty women. About ten minutes later, the thirty to forty women were dead."
Funny thing: Fuchs was sentenced to four years — slightly more than half the prison time Demjanjuk already has done.
In 1983, Thomas Blatt sat down with Karl Frenzel, a commandant at Sobibor. [W.Z. Does Mr. Blatt have a tape-recording of this interview?]
"I was fifteen years old," Blatt told Frenzel. "I survived because you picked me as a shoe-shine boy, but my father, my mother, and my brother, and the other two hundred Jews from Izbica that you led to the gas chamber, did not."
"This was terrible, very terrible," said Frenzel. "I can only tell you with tears — it isn't only now that it upsets me so terribly. It upset me then. You don't know what went on in us, and you don't understand the circumstances we found ourselves in."
And how could Blatt understand how awful things at Sobibor had been for Herr Frenzel? While the boy was polishing boots, Frenzel had helped host Himmler, who visited Sobibor in March 1943. To show the Reichsführer-SS how smoothly things were going at the camp, two hundred Jewish women were selected for their youth and beauty, led naked to the gas chamber, and killed.
Funny thing: Blatt didn't have to visit Frenzel in prison; sentenced to a life term, the former SS-Oberscharführer had been released after serving sixteen years due to poor health. Frenzel was seventy-three years old when he met with Blatt, in a hotel.
Funny thing: During John Demjanjuk's testimony in Jerusalem, there came a day when he grew so upset with the prosecutor's questions that twice he sang out the pain of his remembrance in words close to poor Karl Frenzel's.
"You don't know what it was like for us," he cried. [W.Z. Mr. Raab seems to imply that this is somehow an admission of guilt.]
Sixteen years after Israel set him free, still awaiting justice, he gets two phone calls home each month, thirty minutes' length; he is allowed to talk with his wife, children, and grandchildren during these calls, but not to discuss his case. A Ukrainian interpreter listens in to make sure this rule is obeyed. Demjanjuk must pay in advance for the calls, and his lawyer haggles with his jailers about who must cover the cost of the interpreter.
He is sick. His family and lawyer say he has only a year or so to live. The German doctors examined him and decided that he is fit to be tried, but only for two ninety-minute sessions per day. When his lawyer comes — only his lawyer and priest are allowed to visit him — Demjanjuk weeps.
"They took everything from me," he sobs. "The Germans destroyed my life since 1943, and they're still destroying my life."
He's right, of course. Funny thing, though: As a Jew, my heart does not bleed for this old Ukrainian. I wouldn't go so far as Alan Dershowitz — "The tragedy," he has said, "is not that John Demjanjuk has lost sixteen or seventeen years of his life. The tragedy is that he had twenty to twenty-five good years of life with his family after the Second World War. His victims didn't have those years" — but I grasp his point.
I was raised in an emotional shtetl by Jews who defined all — all — gentiles as The Other. All Ukrainians and Poles were, by virtue of their ethnic origin, Jew haters. Of the Germans, we did not speak. What could be said? Nazis, every one.
And while we Jews divided ourselves by pecking orders — religious, geographic, linguistic, political — we united and defined ourselves as a people in the stupidest way possible: as victims, sufferers, the monolithic object of a monolithic hate that had always been and would always be implacable.
We didn't just let the Holocaust define us. We insisted on it.
Our history? Persecution.
Our inheritance? Genocide. We own it: Count the corpses. Read our books. Visit our museums. Pay homage to our pain.
Somewhere along this line, we ignored the point that makes the Holocaust the greatest of crimes: not because the Jews were its victims, but because it was intended, designed, and executed to rid mankind forever of an entire people. [W.Z. Mr. Raab is repeating the MESSAGE.]
Not to expel them. Not to plunder their wealth. Not to enslave them. Not to further the war effort. The murders of millions of Jews advanced no other cause; it solved no other problem beyond the very existence of Jews. The Holocaust was not the means to any end beyond itself.
But to believe that it had to be the Jews? To believe that somehow the Holocaust was just one more link in an ancient chain of anti-Semitism forged by the undifferentiated horde of global Gentiledom? To define ourselves — and to demand that the world at large define us — primarily as sheep led to slaughter?
No — because it is revisionism of the second-worst sort. The millions of Jews who were shot in Eastern Europe, beginning before there were death camps, were struck almost as if by lightning. And as the gathering up of Jews unfolded in country after country, the Germans managed almost invariably to find Jews — unknowing, or unwilling to know, but sometimes knowing — willing to help maintain an orderly march toward butchery.
No — because in the camps themselves, famously including Sobibor, Jews rose up in revolt.
No — because, whatever the reasons for it, to define the Jews as humankind's perpetual victims ignores the vast bulk of our history. It denies our humanity along with the rest of humankind's. It justifies our own sins, demeans the suffering of others, and hardens hearts on all sides. [W.Z. How true.]
No — because murderous mass psychosis has never relied upon the existence of Jews to manifest itself. It does so — in many places, at many times, for many reasons, or none — without our help.
No — because I want my son to be proud of being a Jew.
So when the government of the United States of America funds a unit of investigators to hunt for Holocaust criminals, attention must be paid to means and ends. It is not Jewish self-hatred to say so; it is not to assign equivalency to the OSI and the Gestapo — the Holocaust has no equivalent; it is not to say that Demjanjuk is innocent of serving as a death-camp guard: It is simply to seek the version of the truth closest to the truth in order to find some version of justice closest to justice.
Anything else — anything less — dishonors every one of us, including the six million who died. [W.Z. Amen! It demeans all of humanity.]
As for John Demjanjuk, what is he to me? A Ukrainian with a lousy alibi and even worse luck.
Also a human being.
John Demjanjuk Jr. has not read Kafka, nor has he read Philip Roth's Operation Shylock, wherein his father's 1988 trial in Israel sets the plot in motion and he himself appears as a minor character, the object of a kidnap-mutilation plan — never executed — designed by Jewish terrorists hoping to force his father to confess.
Funny thing: The first time I spoke with JD, on the phone — while his father's deportation to Germany was making news — he said a man claiming to be a "Jewish terrorist" called in the middle of the night before, threatening to molest JD's children.
"I've got four daughters, between nine and sixteen," he told me. "That's the word he used — molest." JD had let the cops know, and a squad car was dispatched to keep an eye on the school-bus pickups in the neighborhood that morning.
"I hope he tries to find the house. I've got a .357 with hollow-point bullets waiting for him."
Hollow points. As a native Clevelander like JD — John Demjanjuk Sr. put in thirty years at the Ford plant in Brook Park before Hitler took his citizenship, his Medicare, and his Social Security benefits — I love this down-home, old-school touch: Nothing says "Cleveland" quite like specifying your ammo.
Funny thing: We meet for the first time for lunch at a pirate-themed sports-bar restaurant near his job called the Boneyard. It looks like any other place you'd find in the shadow of a suburban mall, except for the faux turret rising above the squatting building and, climbing the fake gray bricks, effigies of human skeletons, clad in shreds. It means nothing, less than nothing, but here is where I'm meeting John Demjanjuk's only son: the Boneyard.
JD turns out to be sharp and funny — although hollow points or not, I wouldn't fool with him — tall and lean, with an iron handshake. A sixth grader when his father was first publicly accused of being a war criminal, he's forty-five years old now. Halfway through a finance degree at Cleveland State University, he dropped out to work with his brother-in-law, Ed Nishnic, fighting his father's case.
"I never really knew anything different," he says now. "It started when I was eleven. What do I remember from before I was eleven? Nothing, really. My dad worked a lot. He was a factory worker. He would work all day, come home tired and eat dinner, and then he'd be working in the yard.
"It was what Ukrainians do — they cultivate their yards. They plant flowers and they grow fruit trees — apple trees and pear trees and plum trees. And they have gardens with beets and tomatoes and cabbage — what you need to make borscht — and green beans and potatoes and corn. Nothing exotic — the staples. That's what it was.
"All we knew — you're a kid, it's all simple — they're saying your dad's this Nazi monster. You know he's not. It's all just that simple. This brutal guy is notorious Ivan the Terrible — and his name's John, which is Ivan, and he's a mechanic at Ford, so he's good with engines — and he was the guy that ran the engines in Treblinka. There you go. We got him."
After thirty-three years of media stakeouts, pickets at his parents' home, and threats of violence and death, no Cleveland name is as famous or befouled, and I ask JD if he ever considered changing his.
"No. It's my dad's. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I wouldn't be here if he didn't survive what he lived through, and my mom didn't survive what she lived through — which was horrific in its own way: It's one thing when a man goes off to war; it's another thing if you're a sixteen-year-old girl and the Nazis throw you on a train and take you to Berlin from your hometown in Ukraine as slave labor. They survived — they lived through a lot of hardship to get here, and so I'm very grateful."
Hardship. Before Hitler came Stalin, who collectivized Ukraine, took its wheat, and forced a famine that starved more than ten million Ukrainians in the early 1930s, when John Demjanjuk Sr. was a lad. He had a pair of shoes when his father wasn't wearing them, and he went to school for three or four years, and he learned to fix a tractor, and he watched all around him as villagers died for want of food — and sometimes ate their dead to stay alive.
The Red Army sent him to war when he was still in his teens, nursed him back to health when he was wounded by shrapnel, and sent him again to the front. He was captured by the Germans in 1942. And here is where a different kind of hardship began. Here, twenty-two-year-old Ivan Nikolayovitch from the flyspeck hamlet of Dubovi Makharyntsi found — one way or another — his literal and heuristic home in Hitler's world.
The camps for Russian prisoners of war were vast encirclements of barbed wire. No shelter, no food, no clothing. Officially — as a matter of Nazi policy — these prisoners were subhuman. Of the millions of Red Army POWs held by the Nazis, roughly 60 percent died. They died slowly, of exposure, disease, and starvation. And again John Demjanjuk saw his countrymen turned into cannibals.
Which hellholes he inhabited and for how long have been matters of dispute for decades now. There is his own version of the story: He survived as a Nazi POW till late in 1944. But there also is the documentary evidence that Demjanjuk was one of the thousands of POWs recruited and trained by the Nazis to staff the death camps, including the testimony of a Ukrainian, long dead, who had been one of the Wachmänner at Sobibor and claimed Demjanjuk as both a friend and a colleague there; the Nazi hunters had known about his statement since 1975, before he died, and buried it because it didn't support their theory that he was Ivan the Terrible.
JD and Ed Nishnic have spent most of their lives and money trying to exonerate John Demjanjuk for the best of all reasons: They love him and believe in his essential goodness.
But you and I needn't suffer much cognitive dissonance to ask: Would we have taken the offer of food, shelter, and clothing to serve the Nazis, or would we have chosen to die? [W.Z. The Jewish Nazi collaborators who testified against Mr. Demjanjuk made their choice.]
I myself don't find it to be a particularly thorny question. But then I've never doubted that even as a prisoner and a Jew, I would have done whatever would have kept me alive; and while it's pretty to think that I might've used whatever drop of strength I had to strike a blow, to brain one enemy, to die on my feet rather than live on my knees, I see little evidence for this in the actual course of my actual life, and I also thank God for never putting such a test in front of me. I've failed much easier.
Of course, God's hand in human affairs is difficult to find, and it would be better not to look for evidence of it in the Nazi camps. Whatever John Demjanjuk did to survive the war, his son will wrestle with forever.
"The Ukrainians who were captured and ended up in places like Sobibor," he says. "How can you judge them for the decision they made to not die in a POW camp but instead get something to eat and clothes on their back? How can you possibly in a courtroom today sit there and understand?
"Some people say, 'Yeah, he's eighty-nine, but he didn't show any compassion to those people in Sobibor.' That's sheer ignorance. First of all, he's presumed innocent, but that's a lawyer's argument. The bottom line is, you don't know what he lived through, how he suffered.
"I'm sorry. I have so much compassion for the families of the people that died in the Holocaust. It was horror beyond belief, and people were slaughtered — and you know what? They were slaughtered in hours. In Ukraine, ten million died of slow starvation. Have some compassion for those people, too. Compassion shouldn't be reserved for a select few.
"If he really were guilty of killing people — I know him, so I know that's not possible, but as the compassionate person he is, he wouldn't be able to deal with his family having to suffer through this."
And that's as close as JD has ever come and will ever go toward admitting that his father might have served at Sobibor.
Funny thing: Ed Nishnic, who married into the Demjanjuk family and still works day and night on the case, fishes a thick manuscript out of the bottom desk drawer. He's divorced now, bankrupt, recovering slowly from a stroke, and sharing a small apartment with thirty-three years of documents.
"I used to have all these Hollywood producers fly in," Ed says, handing me the manuscript. It's a screenplay, and Ed, who's now fifty-four going on eighty, is its hero, the young son-in-law who risked his ass behind the Iron Curtain searching for the real Ivan the Terrible, toting one-pound bags of coffee to use as conversation starters, cold-calling door-to-door in Treblinka to begin with and going wherever the trail led.
"Buddy, I've been chased out of countries, tailed by the KGB, stoned, spit on, bomb threats. Zagreb, the militia came after me. I booked a flight and took a train so they couldn't get me. Don't think it's a drag. It's a drag for the Demjanjuk family, but for Ed Nishnic you're not gonna hear 'Woe is me.' Buddy, I lived my life."
Ed says Robert Urich would've played him, or maybe Ray Liotta. And just in case you think all of this sounds like BS, it ain't. The screenplay is real; the guy who cowrote it, Donald Freed, is a big-shot screenwriter — his credits include Robert Altman's Secret Honor, by far the best Richard Nixon movie ever. Problem was, as one agent explained, "John Demjanjuk is not a sympathetic figure."
Ed Nishnic understands. Which isn't to say that he agrees.
"I confronted Mr. D. only once," Ed tells me now. "He was helping me put windows in, and I says, 'I want to ask you something — is any of this stuff true? Anything? Give me something here, something to grab on to.' He says, 'No.' I say, 'No?' 'No.' Then he says, 'Listen' — and in his broken English — 'if this true, I take a bottle of pills, I go to sleep, finish. Finish.' I says, 'Okay, that's it. That's all I wanted to know.' "
Ed says he's down to fourteen dollars. He's looking for a church in Munich to put him up, so he can fly over and help work on the defense case.
"Can they prove Sobibor?" Ed asks. "There's nothing new the Germans have that was not in the Israelis' hands."
"Did anybody really believe that we were going to get him out of Israel?" asks JD. "Nobody did, except for me and Ed."
This time, though, is different. "He's not going to live through it," JD says.
In 1958, West Germany created the aptly yclept Zentrale Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen zur Aufklärung nationalsozialistischer Verbrechen, the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes, to research the atrocities of the SS and its SD and Gestapo branches and to refer cases for prosecution when enough evidence supports it. In short, the Zentrale staff — many are lawyers or judges — function as criminal investigators.
It is a heavy burden, and tough work. The SS, SD, and Gestapo weren't part of the German military proper, and their civilian acts and victims aren't considered to be part of fighting the war. Their crimes, on German soil and elsewhere, including their death camps in Poland, aren't prosecuted as war crimes but as civilian acts. The Zentrale is a clearinghouse; using its own archives, researching documents held by other nations, interviewing witnesses around the world, this office has tried for fifty years to match the scope and range of the far-flung Nazi murderers.
But the burden goes beyond the work itself. From its inception, many Germans saw the Zentrale's work as a betrayal of the Fatherland — not only airing dirty laundry better off hidden but taking down upstanding Germans who after all had done their duty and followed orders, thousands of them still pillars of postwar society, including, in Hitler's wake, many of the state- and federal-government officials trying to keep the country from collapsing under the rubble, corpses, and shame. And many Germans saw no meaningful differences between killing on the battlefield, the tens of thousands of German civilians incinerated in the fire-bombing of Dresden, and the slaughter of the death camps. War, after all, is hell.
So when the German courts consistently proved themselves, if not sympathetic, at least deeply understanding of Nazi defendants whose defense was that they had done no more than their duty, had only followed orders, and did not do otherwise because they feared for their lives; if it seemed, finally, as though Deutschland was ready, even eager, to let bygones be bygones, that wasn't the Zentrale's fault, and, to their credit, the judges and prosecutors there never stopped looking for justice. Across the span of fifty years, the Zentrale has studied eighteen thousand cases, and Germany has indicted more than one hundred thousand Volk for their parts in the Nazi murders, resulting in a grand, if disheartening, total of sixty-five hundred or so convictions.
[W.Z. Did the Germans ever think of charging and convicting Americans/Britons/Russians for war crimes against Germans during WWII? Or of the perpetrators of genocide of German Mennonites and colonists in the Soviet Union during the Holodomor?]
Funny thing, though: Never had the Germans seen fit to charge a grunt non-German for even one of the millions of murders committed at the death camps. Not even once — not even one.
Until John Demjanjuk.
District Judge Kirsten Goetze has devoted most of her two years at the Zentrale to the Demjanjuk case. She's forty-five years old; a framed photo of her eight-year-old son hangs on the wall next to her desktop screen. A table across from her desk is piled with books, including Keine Kameraden, the first — and still one of the few — to focus on the Russian POWs.
"They died like flies," she says of them. "No question. But it's quite different in 1942. They are treated a little better, relatively."
Her implication is that no Russian POW was required by hardship to work at a death camp: They volunteered, and the SS took them to a camp named Trawniki, fed them SS rations, issued them uniforms, and trained and paid them — three or four thousand in all, many Ukrainian — to hunt, guard, and kill Jews.
But surely a Red Army POW could not have known before his training began what the SS would be training him for?
"I have read a lot of testimonies, and they all said when they were in Trawniki, they know what's going on. It was no secret."
This line of reasoning, this theory — that the Red Army POWs were volunteers in the sense that we understand the word; that they volunteered knowingly, as if the Germans handed out job descriptions on the way to Trawniki — is not merely far-fetched. Part ahistoric ignorance, part legalistic madness, it has nothing to do with either truth or justice. But it pales in comparison to holding a man accountable for even one murder — much less 27,900 — without any specific evidence against him.
"They had to do their job," Goetze explains. "A train comes in — we know from the German SS — everybody has to leave what he is doing and go into the train.
"It's not specific — you can't say, 'Oh, I was only around Sobibor.' There was someone who was a cook, but we know his name. And Demjanjuk is only a Wachmann — the lowest rank."
But this very matter of rank also raises doubt. He already has served more time in prison — in solitary confinement, on death row — than thousands of high-ranking German SS men found guilty of specific acts of murder.
"I think," says Judge Goetze, "it is not correct to say, 'Okay, we decided these cases in the '60s — now please be quiet, he's working, he's a good guy.' "
I had heard the same thing put another way by Dr. Lutz. "In the '60s and '70s," he told me, "there were a lot of people like this set free, Germans who said, 'What else could I do?' I think judgment has changed, the moral judgment. I don't have this moral weakness."
It's reassuring to hear that German morality has been strengthened so much since that little twelve-year psychotic break from 1933 to 1945, yet somehow applying this recent muscularity to the Demjanjuk case still seems unjust, and there is also something slightly ugly — historically speaking, even a little scary — about hearing a younger generation of Germans put things in terms of what is correct and what is weak. Because not only was Demjanjuk not German, he was a prisoner of war. Not only not a Nazi, not even — by Third Reich standards — fully human.
But now? Now Demjanjuk is no mere willing helper or knowing volunteer: He has been promoted to honorary German. "All these Trawniki men are Amtsträger," says Judge Goetze.
"It's very German-specific — someone who is working for the German officials. They lost their status as POWs. They were paid like Germans, they got the same rations as the SS, and care for their health, and so on."
So Demjanjuk was an employee?
"I think it's best to say he is like a German. In my opinion — our opinion, the Zentrale Stelle — he was a part of the German bureaucracy."
The beauty of this theory is not only that it permits Germany to prosecute Untermenschen cogs in the death machine of the Final Solution but also that, sixty-five years after Hitler's fall, it will help the Zentrale pursue more investigations — from its peak years, 1967 to 1971, the agency employed 49 investigators and a total of 121 employees; the entire staff today numbers 18, with only 6 investigators — and survive a few years more. Soon enough the clock will run out on all the ancient Amtsträger — puttering in their gardens, petting their grandchildren — but they can't rest easy. Not yet.
Still, it seems peculiarly German, this theory. These Wachmänner were pure products of the most criminally insane nation in human history, Nazi Germany, trained and put to work by the Nazis in places of demonic brutality — places created and run by Germans who largely paid little or no price for their hideous crimes. And now — now: sixty-five years later — a Ukrainian clump of Red Army fodder, a dumb beast the likes of which the Nazis murdered by the millions, has been transmuted into a German official so that Germans may prosecute him for helping to murder Jews at a German death camp.
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.
And the test case for this theory is the nobody who did a seven-year stretch in Israel for crimes he didn't commit at Treblinka?
Funny thing, this German justice.
Fascinating case, I say.
"Sickening," says Dr. Ulrich Busch, lawyer for Demjanjuk. "It's a complete inhuman tragedy. I never saw a case which touched me so much. I deal with drug dealers, murderers — everything criminal. But they are young or middle-aged, not old people, and they never have suffered so much in their life like he did."
Busch is sixty-eight years old and has practiced law for thirty-five years. His wife, a Ukrainian-American from Michigan, has known of Demjanjuk's case from its early days.
"I heard the first time about Demjanjuk in '86," Busch says now. "I said to my wife, 'This guy I want to defend.' It took me twenty-three years of waiting to get the case."
Busch has filed motion after motion seeking a dismissal — based on lack of German jurisdiction; on double jeopardy, since he was tried in Israel; on the basis of the time in jail he has served already compared with the precedents established in previous Nazi trials; on the grounds of poor health — all to no avail.
Demjanjuk has a nonagenarian's panoply of health issues — kidney problems, a preleukemic bone-marrow disease, gout, back pain. Before his deportation, there were dueling videos taped only a week apart — from his family, the old man twisted, howling in agony, wheelchair-bound; from the Justice Department, a hidden-camera film of Demjanjuk walking through a parking lot and getting into the passenger seat of a car, slowly but with no undue hardship. The German doctors examined him after he arrived in Munich and determined he is sufficiently healthy to endure two ninety-minute court sessions per day.
"I think he's completely unfit to stand trial," says Busch. "He's weak, he has pain, and it will be impossible for him to remember on the fifth day of the trial what was said on the third day. There is no real chance to defend himself."
How long do you expect the trial to last?
"Until his death. The duty of a lawyer in this case is not to win the case someday. It's to try to bring Mr. Demjanjuk out of jail when he is still living."
Where would he go?
"I have no idea. This whole thing is so awful. They take an old man from his wife, they take him from his children, at a time he needs them the most in his life, because he's old and sick, and they bring him into a jail in Germany. If he is innocent, he has no way back to the States. So he will sit in a German nursing home, isolated, not knowing the language, without the ability to socialize. This is for me incredible.
"And we Germans trying him — I have such a bad feeling about that. If Poland would have done it, fine with me. But Germany? Does Germany have the moral right? Not at all. Holocaust, it was a German thing. It was thought out only from Germans, theoretically and practically done, instructed by Germans. You cannot split the guilt with other nations — but that is somehow the ground to hold this trial. Demjanjuk is the monster man — we can show that the Holocaust was not possible without the help of these Trawnikis, especially the Ukrainians."
Busch shakes his head in disgust.
"Der Spiegel said millions of Jews would have survived if there were not Trawnikis. I tell you, not one single — not one single more Jew would have survived. Because people were out of their minds at that time. They were like beasts, like monsters, those Germans. They were — I can't describe how they were.
"Our fathers did it, and we have to carry this burden with us. We have to keep the guilt with the Germans."
Funny thing: at long last, a self-hating German. Such a strange and wondrous country: I have driven it now from Munich to Ludwigsburg — the funky, lovely old spa town where the Zentrale Stelle is headquartered in a former women's prison — to Busch's office near Düsseldorf, and it is, for all the Burger Kings and McDonalds on the Autobahn, a place entirely apart, a nation whose land and people burst with a physical beauty so plain that it comes as a fresh shock to realize that they fell madly in love with a misshapen hump of an Austrian who told them that they were destined to rule the entire planet and — with their help and approval — turned a continent into a slaughterhouse.
But these are mere abstractions drawn from books and films decades after the fact. All they prove is what we know already, and what we do everything we can to forget: We're the only animal that butchers itself. What the Nazis did, in addition to their murders, was to murder souls. They made slaves and murderers of the victims they didn't kill outright, and now they've made a German official out of one of the victims in order to seek justice on behalf of whom? The Jews?
"Justice," says Dr. Busch, and sighs. "It's such a fragile word, you know? If you really touch the word, the letters fall down. We are humans. Justice. Human justice."
Hitler. Eichmann. Demjanjuk? Hilarious.
"He says, 'If Hitler was not there, if he didn't start the Second World War, I would have been still driving a tractor in Ukraine.' And then he starts crying. It's terrible to see, such an old man crying. But it's true, what he says."
With all due respect to the historical nightmare that is Ukraine — arguably the winner of Europe's always bitterly contested prize for ugliest stepchild — the chances are good that had Hitler not ruined him, John Demjanjuk today would perch atop the very same tractor he left behind in 1939.
Near Dubovi Makharyntsi, Demjanjuk's old village, a place so small I can find it on no map, the roads become ruts and the trucks become horse-drawn carriages. It is both luck and standard navigation to stop every few kilometers to ask directions from an ageless leather-skinned man, shirtless under his overalls and sitting high on his ancient, belching tractor, and he points the way with his wrench.
It's late afternoon by the time we find the village. We pull over and the translator asks an old woman working in her garden if she knows of John Demjanjuk. She seems to know the name — it is a long, lively conversation, and her gold teeth flash in the summer sun — but she has referred us to a neighbor a little farther down the rut.
"She says she lives here not for long," the translator says. "She advise to talk Gregori Demerivski."
New in town, is she?
"She arrived in 1960."
It is a village of three hundred or so small farmers. The warm air is full of animal noises — barking, crowing, snuffling, chirping — as we strain the car up a long hump of packed dirt that leads to the Demerivski spread. I'm surprised to see a satellite dish fixed to the house, a solid white-brick cottage beside a pair of ramshackle outbuildings, roofed, like the house, with corrugated tin.
"Inside the house may be really good," the translator explains. "There are traditions to live in the house built by your parents. You can change it inside, but you don't touch it."
Gregori's granddaughter Marisa, who lives here and takes care of him — she looks remarkably like Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert F., except for her feet, crusted with dirt — sets chairs on a small patio, and Gregori hobbles out on crutches, wearing a long-sleeved flannel shirt and heavy pants. His right leg ends in a long, black rubber stump, rounded into a knob where it hits the earth.
Gregori is ninety years old now and has lived here all his life. There were two Ivan Demjanjuks, cousins, who grew up with him; Ivan Nikolayovitch, the one who sits now in jail, was Gregori's friend.
The other, Ivan Andreyovitch — a year or two older, and from the other side of the village, across the small lake — killed himself in the 1970s, after two KGB men, according to one version of the story, came by to interview him. In another version, he killed himself because he was a drunk and his wife was unfaithful.
This is not news. Demjanjuk's lawyers have raised the spectre of this other Ivan in court at various points over the years; Busch told me he hopes to find out more about him — and about his wartime activities — in the government archives in Kiev.
Gregori's friend Ivan could never do such things, he tells the translator in a voice firm and dry. They served together in the army, until Gregori's leg was blown off in a battle with the Germans, and before that they worked together on one of the local collective farms. The Ivan he remembers was a calm, kind boy, good with animals.
Here Gregori launches into a short speech. He sounds strident, even a bit aggrieved.
"He thinks that they must give him opportunity to die in peace."
Marisa shows us the animals, and we refill our water bottles at their roadside well before we leave. There is little more to see — Gregori had said that Demjanjuk's boyhood home fell down many years before. Geese fill the road before us as dusk comes; the falling sky is full of shadows.
Gregori comes to join us and make a farewell plea.
"Let him be free," he says. "How long can he be terrified and punished for sins that were long, long ago?"
Not much longer.
Whatever peace Demjanjuk has made with his past and his God, whatever his sins, whatever the judgment of the court, whatever the truth: not much longer.
He has been a ghost for years already, a shade of remembrance, a repository of fear and punishment, a reminder that human justice is frail at best and at worst a hopeless oxymoron.
Meanwhile — for a little while longer — whether or not he helped to disembody 27,900 Jewish souls, John Demjanjuk will keep alive the memory of this place:
Hidden deep in dark woods, here is what is left of the end of the world.
Here is the ramp — concrete now, dirt then — by these disused tracks, where the Ukrainians rousted the Jews from the trains.
Here their bags were checked, and here they were handed stubs to reclaim their belongings.
Here they were told to strip.
Here the women's hair was cut and bagged.
Here the Wachmänner forced them to run to the gas.
Here life expectancy for a Jew was an hour.
Here all the plaques and memorials and museums say less than the irregular patches of deep-green grass around one of Sobibor's monuments — a vast, circular mound of sand, stone, bone, and ash rising where the gas chambers stood.
Here and here and here and here, the grass truly is greener — nourished by mass graves.
Here words fail.
"Here," says Marek Bern, "is where we found the ashes. I think about 120,000 people were put into the first hole — here."
[W.Z. I have never heard of "ashes" being found before.]
Bern is a Catholic from Wroclaw, in western Poland, an anthropologist, built like a fireplug. His Sobibor museum is a creaking Soviet-era house filled with wobbling display cases.
Funny thing: Over coffee with Bern in the study that doubles as the museum office, I mention that my editor and my mother both wondered if I would visit Auschwitz, too.
Strange, I say to Bern, that Auschwitz is the brand name, the can't-miss camp.
His eyes narrow.
"This is big politics," he says. " 'Auschwitz, Auschwitz, Auschwitz.' Of course, it's a very important symbol — but it's a stupid symbol of the Holocaust. This is good politics — German international politics.
"Eight years ago, I went to a conference at Auschwitz and said that in the four extermination camps was murdered a lot more people than in Auschwitz. They heard that for the first time — it was amazing.
"In 2005, when the Germans opened a big sculpture in the center of Berlin" — Bern's referring to the Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe — "I said to [Chancellor] Schröder, 'I can't understand why you say sorry for the Holocaust in Berlin — not here. The money spent for this sculpture is the budget for the museums in Chelmno, Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor for 140 years. Why are you in Berlin? Here these ashes are waiting for your Sorry — here.' "
Funny thing: John Demjanjuk has had a huge year. Twenty years after being sentenced to die, he finally climbed to the pinnacle of the Wiesenthal Center's list of Nazi war criminals this April, shortly after the Germans filed the arrest warrant that allowed the OSI to put him on the jet to Munich.
The arrest warrant also brought Dr. Lutz an e-mail from Washington:
"All of us at the Office of Special Investigations send our congratulations, best wishes, and expressions of gratitude for your enormously important actions of this week in the Demjanjuk case."
Kudos: The last Nazi is brought to justice.
Because it is not so simple or clear, doing justice after so many years.
And because doing human justice for the Holocaust — so monstrous, so far past any boundary of humanity or justice — is the sort of solemn farce that demands a last Nazi, and who better than a Ukrainian peasant?
"He's very simple," his son JD says. "He's a very simple guy."
Funny thing: A less simple man might have confessed to being at Sobibor long ago — had he been at Sobibor — and spared himself and his family many years of suffering.
A less simple man — had he been at Sobibor — might not have chosen to cling to a lie to protect his children for so many years from his shame.
A less simple man — had he been at Sobibor — might not have let his own shame put a seal of silence on the truth.
"Nobody knows what he did," JD says.
Not so: John Demjanjuk knows.
My favorite Demjanjuk story comes from a lawyer who visited with him as he awaited execution in Israel, who told me that one of the jailers who sat by Demjanjuk's cell watched television to pass the time, and always kept the TV angled so that the prisoner couldn't see it. So Demjanjuk made a TV of his own from a piece of cardboard — drew a screen, drew the knobs — and would kick back on his bunk and watch that while the guard watched his.
What we must do in order to survive, we do.
Funny thing: What Demjanjuk did or didn't do matters no more. Beyond truth, beyond justice, the last Nazi dozes in his cell, waiting for his lunch to come.