Newsweek | 27Nov2009 | Tom Teicholz
My Nazi Revenge
On the eve of what may
be the last Nazi trial, the son of Holocaust survivors recalls
encounters with two accused war criminals.
John Demjanjuk, 89, sits in a Munich prison accused of 27,900 separate
counts of acting as an accessory to murder, crimes the prosecution says
he committed more than 65 years ago as a guard at the Sobibor death
camp in Poland in 1943 and 1944. Recently, the German courts ruled that
he is medically fit to stand trial; the proceeding begins Monday
[30Nov2009]. This is the latest in a 30-year series of trials against
Demjanjuk, pursued in the United States, Israel, and Germany since he
was first named as a Nazi collaborator in 1975 when he was living in a
Cleveland suburb -- a Ford factory worker with a wife and three
I have been following Demjanjuk's case since 1986. I attended his trial
in Israel and wrote a book about it -- The Trial of Ivan the Terrible:
State of Israel vs. John Demjanjuk -- for which I interviewed
prosecution attorneys, judges, government officials, historians, and
Holocaust survivors, as well as Demjanjuk's defense attorneys,
supporters, and his family members. Demjanjuk himself I only observed
and was able to consider through his numerous depositions and
testimonies over the years -- a collection of admissions, half-truths,
lies, evasions, and denials so inconsistent that he remains a cipher.
As a consequence, I have spent many years pondering Demjanjuk's role as
an essential cog in the Nazi engines of death -- and his life in the
Tom Teicholz's book referred to above was written in 1990
from the perspective of the Holocaust Industry consistent with the
guilt of Mr. Demjanjuk. He goes to extraordinary lengths to vilify Mr.
Demjanjuk and his supporters, but does not even mention the
improprieties of the OSI and the prosecution. In the 5-page epilogue,
he tries to downplay the mounting evidence that Mr. Demjanjuk was
innocent and he must have been devastated by the Supreme Court of
Israel's exoneration of Mr. Demjanjuk on 29Jul1993. Rather
than admitting his error and apologizing,
he continues his hate-mongering against Mr. Demjanjuk.
The last sentence of Mr. Teicholz's book states: "Demjanjuk had given
abstract evil a human face." Fair-minded people who read his book and
many articles on the John Demjanjuk case, including this one, are more
likely to conclude that it is the face of Mr. Teicholz that personifies
Demjanjuk's Munich trial may well be the last prosecution of a Nazi war
criminal -- the last Nazi trial. If it is, he is a suitable defendant.
The Final Solution may have been conceived by the Nazi leaders and the
bureaucrats at the Wansee conference; the ghettos, concentration,
labor, and extermination camps may have been planned, designed, and
equipped by "desktop murderers" and staffed by German officers; but
without the Wachmanner, guards like Demjanjuk, the rounding up, the
herding, the torture, and the murder of millions of Jewish men, women,
and children could not have been accomplished.
Demjanjuk's history as an experienced and efficient death-camp guard;
his successful escape when the war ended and his disappearance into the
ordinary bustle of postwar American life; his subsequent exposure as a
willing participant in the Final Solution; the long and complicated
legal struggles that followed his initial indictment -- these are the
classic elements, the essential beats in the true story of the Nazi
next door, that, though it's been told many times before, never ceases
[W.Z. Quiet Neighbors?]
Demjanjuk, who was born in the Ukraine, served in the Red Army and was
captured by the Germans in 1941. Later, he would claim that he spent
the rest of the war as a German POW, but German officials, documents
and witnesses tell a different story. A German ID card, "The Trawniki
card," filled with identifying information and a photo of Demjanjuk in
Nazi uniform, listed him as having been trained to be a Wachmann at the
Trawniki Camp in Nazi-occupied Poland and posted to the Okzow labor
camp and the Sobibor extermination camp. A fellow guard, Ignat
Danylchenko, described him in testimony to Soviet war crimes
prosecutors as having personally participated in the mass murders.
The Trawniki ID card is false and the Danylchenko testimony, extracted
under duress by the KGB in 1979, is contradictory. This document was
available to the OSI, but was withheld from the defense in the 1981
After the war, Demjanjuk surfaced in the displaced-persons camps in
Germany. From there, he filled out the forms that eventually brought
him to the United States, where in 1958 he became a citizen. On those
forms he wrote variously that he was Polish and that during the war
years he had been a driver or a farmer in a town in Poland named
Sobibor. However, in the mid-1970s when Demjanjuk was being
investigated for his alleged wartime activities, 10 Holocaust survivors
as well as a former German camp official identified him not as being at
Sobibor but as being the Ivan who operated the gas chambers at the
Treblinka extermination camp, a sadistic guard whom prisoners called
"Ivan the Terrible."
The Ivan the Terrible charges took center stage, with the Trawniki card
confirming Demjanjuk's Nazi service. In 1981, Demjanjuk was stripped of
his U.S. citizenship. In 1983 he was ordered deported. Israel, which
had not held a Nazi war-crimes trial since the Eichmann trial in 1961,
requested his extradition. The idea that Ivan the Terrible would go
unpunished was unthinkable. At the trial in Jerusalem, five Holocaust
Nazi collaborators who lied through their teeth] gave
moving and detailed testimony of their experiences and
identified Demjanjuk from both his 1951 visa photo and the Trawniki
photo. A host of historian and expert witnesses confirmed the
authenticity of the Trawniki card. [NOT
TRUE!] Demjanjuk testified in his defense,
but his alibi was not found credible. Demjanjuk was convicted and
sentenced to death.
However, during the appeal, new evidence -- testimonies discovered in
the war-crimes trial archives of the former Soviet Union -- was
submitted to the Israel Supreme Court that another guard, Ivan
Marchenko, operated the Treblinka gas chambers. The Israel Supreme
Court ruled that although the trial evidence proved Demjanjuk was a
trained Nazi guard who served at death camps, including Sobibor, and
although the Holocaust survivors' identifications had been trustworthy,
the new evidence created a reasonable doubt that Demjanjuk was Ivan the
Terrible of Treblinka. The conviction was overturned. Given that
Demjanjuk had already spent almost eight years in jail, Israel declined
to retry him on the Sobibor charges and released him.
Back in the U.S., the courts [ruled that the OSI were guilty of prosecutorial misconduct constituting fraud on the court,] restored Demjanjuk's citizenship and ruled
that if the government wanted to pursue the Sobibor charges, they would
have to start their case anew. Which they did, successfully,
culminating in Demjanjuk's deportation to Germany this summer.
Demjanjuk's upcoming German trial raises the questions: Can the trial
of an 89-year-old man who has managed to live a great part of his life
in the United States with his wife, children, and grandchildren deliver
any satisfaction? Any closure? Or must we settle for mere fantasies of
revenge, like the vivid and enjoyably lurid scenes recently presented
by Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds?
My own fantasies of Nazi revenge took hold in 1976, when I accompanied
my parents -- both Holocaust survivors -- to St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Late one afternoon, as we had tea at the Suvretta House Hotel with one
of my parents' wealthy friends, I spied a cheery corpulent man sitting
across from us. A waiter fawned over him. My parents' friend froze and
hissed to us, "That's Menten." Born to a wealthy Dutch family, Pieter
Menten was Hollands's most notorious Nazi. As a member of the SS during
the war, he participated in the roundup and murder of Jews in Poland,
before amassing several trainloads of plunder, which he brought back to
Amsterdam. In 1949, he served eight months for the lesser charge of
serving in Nazi uniform. In 1976 as he was about to auction off his
horde, journalists launched a new campaign to reveal Menten's war-times
activities. Tipped off that he was about to be arrested, Menten fled to
Switzerland where he took up residence at the Suvretta House.
"He goes up to the old Jewish ladies," my mother's friend said, "and
asks if he can join our bridge game. Imagine that!" she said, appalled.
I was outraged to see him sitting there, so self-satisfied. My own
imagination turned to poison in his tea -- perhaps posing as a waiter
to administer it.
Though under Swiss law the statute of limitations for his wartime
crimes had expired, Menten was eventually expelled as an undesirable
alien. A Dutch court convicted him of murder -- but the Dutch Supreme
Court voided his conviction based on the revelation that in 1952 he'd
received a promise of immunity from a former Dutch minister of justice.
Retried in 1980, he was convicted again and sentenced to 10 years. In
1985 he was released for good behavior. He died in 1987, at age 88, in
a Dutch nursing home. No cause of death was given.
Did I feel cheated of my revenge? Absolutely not. Although one might
think that Menten never got his due -- or that Demjanjuk will not get
his -- that's not true. If they thought no one would know, or no one
would care, they were wrong. The history of Nazi war-crimes
prosecutions, from Nuremberg to the present, has created a detailed
record of evildoing. If the perpetrators got to live a life they didn't
deserve, they also had to endure the years of revelations, and court
hearings, of being hounded by the press and shunned by their neighbors.
The time they had with their families will forever be balanced by what
they made their families endure, and by the perpetual and immutable
taint on their names in the annals of evil -- and even on Google.
My parents, who survived the Holocaust, neither forgot nor forgave the
perpetrators -- but paramount to them was that they moved on. My own
revenge fantasies are best left to the likes of Tarantino, a creative
spirit not only willing to rewrite history but also English
orthography. I have seen real-life Nazis, and for them, I wish not
death but justice, in all its slow and revealing process, creating a
historical record of their shameful (and shameless) deeds. That is my
revenge. [W.Z. Such fantasies of revenge suggest Mr. Teicholz suffers from deep psychological problems.]
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