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Cleveland Plain Dealer | 17Mar2012 | John Caniglia
Seven Hills' John
convicted Nazi guard, dies in Bavaria at 91
John Demjanjuk died Saturday in Germany, ending nearly 35
years of legal battles with officials in three countries who claimed he
was a Nazi death camp guard.
During those years, the former Seven Hills autoworker was
imprisoned in the United States, sentenced to death in Israel -- until
its highest court freed him -- and, last May, convicted in Germany for
serving as an accessory in the deaths of more than 28,000 people at a
death camp. He was sentenced to five years in prison but freed while he
appealed the conviction.
Demjanjuk was 91. He had been living in a nursing home in the
Bavarian town of Bad Feilnbach, according to published reports. He died
nearly three years after being taken from his suburban home and flown
overseas, a deportation ordered after U.S. judges ruled that he lied
about his Nazi past when he entered the country in 1952 and that he was
a guard at two concentration camps and a death camp in World War II.
The cause of death was unclear, though Demjanjuk's family has said he
suffered incurable bone marrow disease. His family and friends have
said he was weakened by the legal fight with the U.S. government to
prove that he was not a Nazi guard.
"My father fell asleep with the Lord as a victim and survivor of Soviet
and German brutality since childhood," Demjanjuk's son, John Jr., told
the Associated Press. "He loved life, family and humanity. History will
show Germany used him as a scapegoat to blame helpless Ukrainian POWS
for the deeds of Nazi Germans."
Attempts to reach John Demjanjuk Jr. were unsuccessful Saturday.
Demjanjuk's family fought for weeks in 2009 to prevent the deportation
to Germany, saying their father was too frail and ill to withstand
another trial. They also hammered away at the case of German
prosecutors, saying Demjanjuk never harmed anyone, let alone took part
in the deaths of thousands of people.
His case fueled a bitter debate over suspected Nazi war criminals:
Should men in the last years of their lives face deportation and
war-crimes trials for something that happened more than 65 years ago in
the midst of war?
"Demjanjuk shows the Justice Department's determination to do the right
thing, no matter the passage of time, to bring Nazi war criminals to
justice," Alan Rosenbaum, a Cleveland State University philosophy
professor and author of the book, "Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals,"
said Saturday. "It's most fitting that he died in Europe, where he
served the Nazi cause, and not in the United States. And hopefully, his
body will not be returned to the United States, the country that
brought down the Nazi regime."
Demjanjuk's family can have the body returned to the United States, but
it is unclear whether that will take place.
Attorney Joseph McGinness, who over the last two decades has
represented guards who patrolled the perimeter of concentration camps,
said the government wasted its time and tax dollars in dealing with
Demjanjuk and others.
"These were nobodies -- if in fact they were even there," McGinness
said Saturday. "They weren't the people making the decisions in the
camps. There was no reason to chase any of them. None of them had a
rank above private. Everyone of these people was nothing. They were
Demjanjuk's family said the government forced a grandfather who lived
for his family to seldom leave his home, only to drive to the grocery
store, his doctor or church. His outlet was his garden.
The man who became a symbol of the Holocaust's collaborators to many
was born Ivan Demjanjuk on April 3, 1920, in the village of Duboviye
Makharyntsy in western Ukraine. His father, Mykola, was a disabled
veteran who lost several fingers fighting during World War I. His
mother, Ulyana, often was ill. He and his sister often had no shoes,
and poverty prevented Demjanjuk from completing school.
In the early 1930s, the Soviets sought to destroy the Ukrainians for
owning their own land. The Soviets, in effect, starved a nation known
as Europe's bread basket.
As a teenager, Demjanjuk survived by working as a plowman and a tractor
driver on a farm. He was later drafted into the Soviet Red Army and in
1941, he was wounded in combat as the Germans tried to take control of
Kiev. An explosive sent shrapnel into his back. He was hospitalized for
four months, released and sent back to the front lines, where he was
captured by German soldiers in the Crimea in May 1942.
His activities and whereabouts from that time until he found his way to
an American-operated displaced persons camp in 1945 became the focus of
the trials he would face decades later.
Demjanjuk had said he was sent to a series of prisoner-of-war camps
after his capture and did heavy labor. In 1944, he said, he was
transferred to Graz, Austria, where he joined a group of Ukrainian
soldiers who began fighting the Soviets, in collaboration with the
After the war, Demjanjuk found refuge in displaced persons camps. In
1945, while in the camp in Landshut, Germany, he met a Ukrainian named
Vera. They married two years later and moved to nearby Regensburg,
another displaced persons camp, where Demjanjuk worked as a truck
driver for the U.S. Army.
The Demjanjuks said they determined that they could not go home to
Ukraine because he would be considered a traitor for allowing the Nazis
to recruit him into an anti-Communist fighting unit. Demjanjuk claimed
he would face a court martial and execution if he returned to his
Fearing repatriation to his homeland, he has claimed that he lied on
his U.S. visa application about his military service and wartime
whereabouts. He also swore he never assisted in the persecution of any
person because of race, religion or national origin.
Demjanjuk entered the United States on Feb. 9, 1952, saying he spent
much of his war years in the town of Sobibor, Poland. He eventually
settled in Seven Hills and worked as an assembly line mechanic at Ford
Motor Co. in Brook Park.
On Nov. 14, 1958, he became a naturalized citizen and changed his name
from Ivan to John.
From his arrival in Greater Cleveland, Demjanjuk was a model citizen.
He was an active member of St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Church,
first in Cleveland and then in Parma. He and his wife had three
children, John, Lydia and Irene, and Demjanjuk often helped his
children's friends repair their bicycles and cars.
In the mid-1950s, Vera Demjanjuk wrote to Demjanjuk's mother in Ukraine
that her son had survived the war and emigrated to America, according
to Plain Dealer stories. The older woman jubilantly reported Demjanjuk
After becoming aware of that, Soviet war-crimes investigators
confiscated family records and photographs and branded Demjanjuk a
On Aug. 25, 1977, Demjanjuk's life changed.
He returned home from work that day to find photographers waiting in
his driveway to snap pictures of the alleged Nazi-collaborator.
Using a Nazi identification card with Demjanjuk's name, birth date and
parentage, the Justice Department asked a federal judge to revoke
Demjanjuk's citizenship, charging that he lied on his application and
entered the United States illegally.
The card was provided by Soviet officials who said that their soldiers
recovered the card from the Trawniki training camp, where guards
learned to perform mass executions during the war.
The Justice Department also found nearly a dozen survivors of the Nazi
death camp at Treblinka. They identified Demjanjuk as "Ivan the
Terrible," a Ukrainian guard who tortured Jewish inmates and operated
the gas chambers that exterminated an estimated 900,000 people, mostly
Jews, during the war. The Justice Department also charged that
Demjanjuk killed Jews at the Sobibor death camp.
In 1981, a federal judge stripped Demjanjuk of his citizenship.
Television and newspapers carried stories about witnesses weeping,
spectators crying and Demjanjuk's wife, Vera, fainting. At the defense
table, Demjanjuk seemed "expressionless, serene and disconnected,"
according to Plain Dealer stories.
A judge ordered his deportation based on his wartime past. He was
imprisoned at a medical facility in Missouri for nearly a year before
Israel agreed to charge him. In 1986, Demjanjuk became the second
accused Nazi war criminal ever taken to Israel. The first was Adolf
A three-judge panel in Israel found Demjanjuk guilty of war crimes and
sentenced him to death. He spent six years in a prison cell in Israel
while his sentence was appealed. All the while, he maintained his
In 1991, his appeal was pending when the Soviet Union collapsed, a move
that allowed his lawyers to produce testimony from witnesses who
identified another man, Ivan Marchenko, as "Ivan the Terrible."
In 1993, Israel's Supreme Court overturned Demjanjuk's conviction, but
it stressed that the Nazis had trained him to become a guard and that
he had served at the Sobibor death camp. He was released from prison in
September 1993 and returned to his family in Seven Hills.
In 1998, U.S. District Judge Paul Matia in Cleveland reinstated
Demjanjuk's citizenship, but the judge left open the chance for the
Justice Department to look at Demjanjuk's past at three concentration
camps, Sobibor and Majdanek in Nazi-occupied Poland and Flossenburg
A year later, the Office of Special Investigations, the Justice
Department's Nazi-hunting unit, re-opened the case. In May 2000, OSI's
director, Eli Rosenbaum, and prosecutors took their investigation to
Matia, and during a two-week trial they offered seven documents that
tied Demjanjuk to working at concentration and death camps.
In his decision in February 2002, Matia said Demjanjuk and other
Nazi-trained guards led Jews off the trains at Sobibor, disrobed them
and led them to the gas chambers. Demjanjuk appealed. His attorneys
said the Seven Hills' man was the victim of a mistaken identity.
They claimed that Demjanjuk had a cousin, also named Ivan, who grew up
in the same village. The defense said it was that Ivan who worked with
the Nazis, not the Demjanjuk who came to Ohio.
Appeals judges scoffed, and Demjanjuk took his case to the U.S. Supreme
Court, which sided in 2004 with Matia. An immigration judge ordered his
deportation to Ukraine, Germany or Poland a year later. But his family
feared that he would be tortured if he returned to his native Ukraine.
"The U.S. government has marked Demjanjuk with the blood scent of Ivan
the Terrible," his attorney, John Broadley, said at a hearing over his
deportation. "Now, they want to take Demjanjuk, covered in that blood
scent, and throw him into a shark tank."
Despite the deportation order, none of the three countries appeared
interested in taking Demjanjuk, and he remained in Seven Hills.
That was until July 2008, when German officials said they wanted
Demjanjuk on charges of murdering Jews at Sobibor. Demjanjuk's family
said Germany only took the case after caving to pressure from the
Office of Special Investigation and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a
Jewish human rights organization.
In March 2009, German authorities filed an arrest warrant for
Demjanjuk, accusing him of participating in the deaths at Sobibor.
Over the next several weeks, Demjanjuk's family sought to keep him in
Seven Hills. His family said he suffered from several health problems.
In two cases, appeals courts stopped the deportation so judges could
review case law and Demjanjuk's law briefs.
On April 14, federal agents carried Demjanjuk out of his home in a
wheelchair and prepared to put him on an airplane. He moaned in
apparent pain. His family said it was caused by federal agents dropping
him as they carried him inside his house.
He was headed for the airport and on to Germany. But within hours, he
was home again, as the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati
stopped the move because of health concerns. Later, the Justice
Department offered video of Demjanjuk walking without help.
On May 11, just days after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his
case, federal agents showed up again at Demjanjuk's home. This time, no
judges stepped in. An ambulance pulled into the family's garage, and he
Nearly four hours later, a Gulfstream jet roared off the tarmac at
Burke Lakefront Airport, and his battle in America was over.
"My father will not live to fairly litigate the matter as has
successfully been done before," Demjanjuk's son, John, said weeks after
"They will now file sensational charges to make headlines that could
never withstand a fair test of litigation," he said. "There will be no
evidence of even one specific murder because he has never harmed anyone
in his life."
Soon after his plane touched down in Munich, Demjanjuk was charged with
being an accessory to more than 28,000 deaths at Sobibor. He was held
in a jail hospital.
The German press called the case the last major Nazi war crimes trial,
one that would capture the attention of the world. It began Nov. 30,
The trial produced little new evidence, and prosecutors in Germany
relied on the evidence that OSI and federal prosecutors in Cleveland
used years earlier. Demjanjuk's lawyers said he never served at
Sobibor. They also attacked the key piece of evidence against him in
his three-decade legal fight: the Nazi guard pass that Matia had ruled
contained Demjanjuk's picture, birth date and family history.
His defense attorneys in Germany said it was a Soviet forgery, the same
argument used since the late 1970s, said Guenther Maull, a defense
attorney. Demjanjuk was convicted in May 2011 of the German charges
after a trial that lasted more than 18 months. After his conviction, he
lived in a German nursing home, a world away from his family in
But his attorneys kept fighting. They claimed that federal prosecutors
in the United States withheld a key FBI document that questioned the
legitimacy of the guard pass. A federal judge in December ruled that
the FBI document was based on speculation and mistaken beliefs. The
attorneys appealed the decision to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of a
"We had far, far more of this story to tell, and we were in the midst
of trying to do that," said Dennis Terez, the federal public defender
in Cleveland representing Demjanjuk in his final appeal in the United
States. He said Saturday that he and other attorneys working the case
"wanted nothing more, nothing less than to be sure the truth about Mr.
Demjanjuk's life is known."
Federal prosecutors offered another side.
"This marks the end of a decades-long effort in multiple countries that
ultimately established the truth about John Demjanjuk's Holocaust
crimes," said U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach in Cleveland. "There is
no judicial or natural outcome that can erase the acts of Nazi
Former Plain Dealer
reporters Michele Lesie and Bill Sloat contributed to this story. Plain
Dealer archives also were used.
To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: firstname.lastname@example.org, 216-999-4097