Forward | 19Nov2010 | A. J. Goldmann
Demjanjuk’s Long Road to Justice
Nears a Murky End
The day I arrive in Munich is dismal and gray. One of the
jewels in Germany’s crown, the Bavarian capital does not impress on a
day like this. Rather, the Glockenspiel at Marienplatz, and the elegant
shopping boulevard Maximilianstrasse seem dull and lifeless. Inside,
the beer halls are bustling. No wonder -- they are the only islands of
cheer on this October day.
For the past 27 years, justice has pursued John Demjanjuk.
Now, in Munich, German prosecutors are having a last go at the
90-year-old retired American autoworker and alleged guard at Nazi death
camps during World War II.
This is a prosecution that features something unprecedented.
Over three decades, Demjanjuk has undergone two long denationalization
and deportation proceedings in the United States and a lengthy trial in
Israel. But the man once pegged as the notorious Ivan the Terrible of
Treblinka -- a sadistic perpetrator of mass atrocities -- has never
tied beyond reasonable doubt to any specific criminal act. And so, in
what is almost surely one of the last Nazi war crimes trials that will
take place on German soil, prosecutors are seeking to persuade the
current court of a simpler allegation: that Demjanjuk was a prison
guard at Sobibor death camp -- one of many in concentration camps
throughout Europe -- and that this constituted a war crime independent
of any specific criminal act Demjanjuk may or may not have committed --
in essence, that Demjanjuk is guilty of being in the wrongest of places
at the wrongest of times.
“It is really something new about the Munich trial,” wrote Michael
Koch, one of Demjanjuk’s prosecutors, in an e-mail to the Forward. “The
prosecution in former days always looked for specific actions in order
to bring Nazi criminals to justice.”
The trial, which started last November and is expected to last until
spring 2011, has been delayed time and again by Demjanjuk’s health
issues, some possibly fabricated to gain the court’s sympathy. This
trial offers nothing like the concision of a “Law & Order”
Still, I had a genuine shock when I entered the Munich regional court
the day of the 50th session. I was expecting John Grisham, and I got
Samuel Beckett. Absurdities, oddities and complexities abound in this
case, and one feels a palpable sense of disconnect between the laudable
goal of bringing an alleged Nazi criminal to justice and the humdrum
grind of a long trial that itself comes only after a much longer and
very cloudy legal trail now sputtering and slouching to an uncertain
Demjanjuk was born Ivan Mykolayovych Demianiuk in Ukraine in 1920. He
served as a soldier in the Red Army during World War II, and in 1942 he
became a German prisoner of war. On these things, all agree.
It is also uncontested that in 1952, Demjanjuk arrived in America with
his wife and child, settling first in Indiana and then in Ohio.
Twenty-five years later, the Justice Department initiated proceedings
to strip him of his citizenship, citing his alleged concealment of his
involvement in war crimes at the Nazi death camps at Majdanek, Sobibor
and Flossenbürg. Relying on eyewitnesses and on identity documents
supplied by the Soviet Union, the federal prosecutors contended that
Demjanjuk was, in fact, “Ivan the Terrible,” a kapo, or notorious
prisoner-turned-guard, at the Treblinka and Sobibor camps, a man known
to have committed numerous murders and acts of savage violence against
camp prisoners during 1942 and 1943.
Between 1977 and 1988, Demanjuk was stripped of his U.S. citizenship
and extradited to Israel, where he was tried and found guilty of war
crimes as Ivan, the Treblinka kapo.
[W.Z. It is my understanding that the term "kapo" was reserved for
Jewish prisoners, who served their German masters at the expense of
their fellow Jewish prisoners.]
During his trial, several former camp prisoners identified Demjanjuk as
“Ivan” of Treblinka. Demjanjuk claimed he was never anything other than
a prisoner of war after his capture. But he also admitted that the scar
under his armpit that had denoted his blood type was an SS marking that
he removed after the war.
Then, during Demjanjuk’s appeals process, the Soviet Union fell, and
suddenly Soviet archives brought forth new evidence: the written
statements of 37 former guards at Treblinka who identified Ivan the
Terrible as one Ivan Marchenko, not Ivan Demjanjuk.
is disinformation. All such evidence was in the hands of the OSI during
the initial denaturalization trial in 1981. Reference to the "fall of
the Soviet Union" is just a red herring.]
American officials, it turned out, had originally been aware of the
testimony of two of these German guards but had never informed the
defense -- a fact that later led a U.S. appeals court to rule that
Demjanjuk had been a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, even as it
also found the evidence was convincing that Demjanjuk had been a lesser
SS figure or camp guard. [W.Z. It is not true that the Sixth Circuit Court ruled on the Sobibor or other evidence.]
After the emergence of these archival statements, the Israeli Supreme
Court reversed Demjanjuk’s conviction, citing the “gnawing” new
evidence of mistaken identity. But the Supreme Court judges also found
other facts “proved the appellant’s participation in the extermination
process” as a guard.
“The matter is closed -- but not complete, the complete truth is not
the prerogative of the human judge,” the court wrote.
Demjanjuk was returned to the United States, and his citizenship was
restored until 1999, when the Justice Department initiated a new effort
to denationalize and deport him. This time, federal prosecutors alleged
simply that he had entered the country while concealing his service as
a guard at Sobibor and Majdanek. Demjanjuk lost his last appeal in
2008, and in 2009 Germany sought his extradition from the U.S. to stand
trial in Munich.
In the Munich trial, Demjanjuk has been indicted for being an accessory
to 28,060 counts of murder. The prosecution is putting together a case
that describes the Sobibor killings as a single project that
collectively implicated everyone employed there -- even low-ranking
guards and auxiliaries, the cogs in the Nazi killing machine -- in the
exclusive purpose of mass extermination. To do this, however, requires
proving that Sobibor, during the time Demjanjuk is said to have worked
there, was strictly and solely a factory for death. Once that is shown,
it needs to be established beyond reasonable doubt that Demjanjuk in
fact served there. Demjanjuk continues to deny having ever been a guard
The sessions I saw were sparsely attended. Demjanjuk was wheeled into
court in a hospital bed. He wore sunglasses and a baseball cap and was
partially covered by a green blanket. Throughout the session, he barely
moved or made a sound. During rare moments of silence in the courtroom,
his low moans could be heard. It was difficult to determine whether the
defendant could even follow the proceedings.
Among the co-plaintiffs are four survivors of Sobibor and 23 Dutch
first-degree relatives of victims from the camp. Two of the Dutch
co-plaintiffs were present during my dates in court. For them, this
trial is about both fulfilling an ethical obligation and achieving
Psychologist Robert Wurms, one-time chairman of the Central Jewish
Board of the Netherlands, said that there is an obligation to mete out
justice regardless of the accused’s age: “He committed crimes in this
system and took lives on an industrial scale. We can’t be indifferent
Robert Fransman, a former salesman, who, like Wurms, lost multiple
family members during the war, added a personal reflection. “The
Holocaust is about big numbers, but the names of Rachel Fransman and
Isaac Fransman are never named. When I heard the judge call the names
of my sister, whom I never knew, or my parents, whom I never knew, it
was like Kaddish,” said Fransman, who is blogging the trial for a Dutch
radio station’s website.
But at the start of the session on October 25, Ulrich Busch,
Demjanjuk’s defense lawyer, frantically waved in the air an article
discussing a just released report on the German Foreign Ministry’s role
in the Holocaust. “Why are you prosecuting a 90-year-old man who’s near
to death when you still have Nazis right here in Germany?” he shouted
at the presiding judge, Ralph Alt, with whom he sparred often and
loudly during the morning session.
From the opening of the trial last November, Busch has claimed that
Germany has handpicked Demjanjuk as a scapegoat for its own crimes.
“Germany still gives to all Germans who were in lower ranks and took
part in the extermination of Jews de facto amnesty. They only pick out
Mr. Demjanjuk from the States, and they persecute only him. First, they
have to clear the situation with their own people before they start
bringing people from other nations to court in Germany,” he told me in
the hallway during a break from the session. His vehemence impressed
me, but it also seemed a continuation of his earlier performance in
Angelika Benz, a 29-year-old doctoral candidate at the Technical
University of Berlin who is writing her dissertation on Trawniki, the
camp at which Demjanjuk allegedly trained, finds some truth to Busch’s
claim. “If you think about the German perpetrators, they were well
integrated in the after-war society. So if you now try to get them, you
will find well-honored people. If you go in a little village near
Munich, for example, maybe it would be [a retired] mayor. And then if
you try to get that person in front of a trial, you would have a
problem with the whole society. He would be a neighbor, a friend, a
father,” she said.
For Wurms, however, the trial is a sign of the long way Germany has
come in the past 65 years. “You have to compare this trial to the
trials from after the war. I think this generation of judges and
lawyers is totally different from the generation after the war. And you
can feel and hear from them how ashamed they are of how Germany dealt
with those criminals and didn’t convict them, or gave slight
punishments. This is also a revolution of the new generation against
the old generation. It must have a base in society and general
feeling,” he explained.
On my second day in court, Demjanjuk failed to show up on time,
claiming physical distress. When court doctor Albrecht Stein reported
that he couldn’t find anything wrong with him, Judge Alt ordered
Demjanjuk to present himself for the afternoon session.
While waiting for Demjanjuk to arrive, I ran over to the Altstadt to
meet with Aaron Buck, the press officer for Munich’s Jewish community.
As I entered, Buck handed me a photo from a German tabloid, which
showed Demjanjuk in his hospital bed. “These pictures don’t help us to
talk about the real important things,” he said, adding that such images
resonate with those who are fed up with discussions of Germany’s
wartime crimes. The situation would be even worse, he felt, if
Demjanjuk himself were German. “If he was presenting his testimony in
German, and people saw that this German grandfather was on trial, I
think that many Germans would sympathize more with him,” he explained.
Buck suggested that the trial might be more significant for Germany as
a whole than for the Jewish community. “It’s a good end of the story.
It’s not that you can run away and live in Argentina or whatever. So I
think it’s important for Germany, but for the Jews, he’s just one of
thousands who finally were found,” Buck said, adding that Munich’s
9,000 Jews are more concerned with contemporary issues than with
digging into the past.
Demjanjuk eventually arrived from Stadelheim Prison at 1 p.m. The day’s
witness was a lawyer from The Hague, Regina Grüter, who testified about
the Westerbork database, a compendium of information on the transports
of Dutch Jews to Sobibor. Busch seemed intent on wasting as much time
as possible on irrelevant questions. By now, everyone in court seemed
to be fed up with his stalling techniques, and Alt forcibly shut him up
at several points.
Since it is crucial for the prosecution to show that all the Jews
delivered to Sobibor in the summer of 1943 were marked for death, Busch
tried any tack he could to dispute the relevance of these transport
lists. In a moment that was almost contemptible, he asked whether, in
addition to the lists of Jews put on the trains bound for Sobibor,
there were lists confirming that these Jews ever actually arrived at
the camp. The question met with groans of disbelief. Periodically, Dr.
Stein -- who with his handlebar mustache, ratty hair and
blazer-with-jeans combo looked like he just wandered out of a
Fassbinder film -- administered painkillers to his patient.
“The best thing that could happen to him, in my opinion, is that he
could stay in prison, because he’s very well taken care of,” Fransman
said. “In the absolutely unthinkable case that he’s acquitted, it would
be a disaster for him, because no country wants him. There’s no place
for him on earth.”
Surprisingly, I heard similar sentiments from Demjanjuk’s defense
lawyer. “He would be in a terrible situation if he was acquitted,”
Busch confided to me.
For Fransman, the main point is not the sentence; it’s the verdict. “I
want the court to say ‘guilty’ — as far as I’m concerned, with no
penalty at all,” he said, noting that “the last 27 years of his life,
he has been in and out of court, and his life is so miserable.”
In the German system, three years is the minimum sentence for accessory
to murder. “So he will get three years; that’s my opinion,” Fransman
said. “And for him, he should hope to die in those three years.”
To A.J. Goldmann (at Forward) | 11Nov2010 | Orest Slepokura
After a Murky Beginning
and a Murky Middle, Demjanjuk's Long Road to Justice Nears a Murky End
Re: "Demjanjuk's Long Road to Justice Nears a Murky End," Forward, 19
November 2010 issue.
There's much one could say about the John Demjanjuk case, but, for the
"fun" of it, I'll limit myself to just commenting on the actual
headline above your column.
First, "Demjanjuk's Long
Road ..." As I understand it, Demjanjuk's name
first appeared in connection with Nazi war crimes in a Soviet era
publication in Ukraine back in 1975. IOW, the John Demjanjuk case has
been around in one form or other for at least the last 35
years; i. e., about three times as long in duration than the
Second, "Road to Justice."
The word justice
in the Demjanjuk
context calls to mind this exchange from Robert Bolt's superlative play
A Man for All Seasons:
Sir Thomas More:
You threaten like a dockside bully.
How should I threaten?
Sir Thomas More:
Like a minister of state. With justice.
Oh, justice is what you're threatened with.
Sir Thomas More:
Then I am not threatened.
To borrow Cromwell's line, John Demjanjuk has spent the last 35 years
of his life being "threatened with" justice -- by Soviet and American,
Israeli and German Cromwells.
Third, "Nears a Murky
End." Well, why not a "Murky End?"
Given how the beginning of Demjanjuk's ordeal was sourced to murky KGB
skullduggery in Moscow, we might just as rightly refer to its Murky
And, considering how the middle of the affair -- Demjanjuk's "Ivan the
Terrible" trial, taking up seven years of his life, all spent in Israel
-- was the serpent's egg of OSI skullduggery over in Washington, we
may, I believe, also regard the Middle of the John Demjanjuk Affair as
having been shrouded in brown murk.
Thus, a better headline for your column should have proclaimed: After a
Murky Beginning and a Murky Middle, Demjanjuk's Long Road to Justice
Nears a Murky End.
Forward | 11Nov2010 | Lubomyr Prytulak
A. J. Goldmann writing "Demjanjuk’s Long Road to Justice Nears a Murky
End" on 10 Nov 2010 at http://www.forward.com/articles/133048/
neglects to mention several key points, among them being that the Ivan
the Terrible of Treblinka, for whose crimes John Demjanjuk came close
to being hanged in Jerusalem, is imaginary:
BLURB BIOGRAPHY OF JOHN DEMJANJUK, SO FAR
And that the Trawniki ID Card which links Demjanjuk to Sobibor is a KGB
LARRY STEWART'S COUNTERCLOCKWISE SOLUTION
The BLURB BIOGRAPHY above also touches on the principle that
so long as "survivor" testimony is protected from cross-examination,
and since our understanding of what happened at Treblinka and Sobibor
depends entirely on "survivor" testimony, then it is fair to say that
no one knows what happened at locations such as Treblinka and Sobibor.
Another rather important point is that since ALL eyewitnesses that
testified in Jerusalem that John Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible of
Treblinka turn out to have been lying, it may be reasonable to ask
whether all, or some, of the eyewitnesses and co-prosecutors in Munich
aren't lying as well? And we do know that ALL eyewitnesses in
Jerusalem were lying because today it is acknowledged by everyone that
John Demjanjuk was never at Treblinka, and because we also know that
there was no Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka.
I am astonished at the ignorance and bias that Goldmann exhibits in his