WITHIN DAYS, the Butcher of Treblinka, the sadistic Ukrainian who operated the gas chamber at that Nazi death camp in occupied Poland will stand trial in Israel. So we are told.
Other questions arise.
The man to be prosecuted as "Ivan the Terrible," the barbaric guard of Treblinka, is John Demjanjuk, a naturalized American who came to the United States in 1952 as a displaced person, a church-going family man from Cleveland and retired auto mechanic for the Ford Motor Co.
Until the late '70s, Demjanjuk had seemed the very model of the solid citizen. It was then that the newly-formed Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations at the Department of Justice opened its Demjanjuk file. Two years later, Justice Department lawyers strode into a Cleveland courtroom for a denaturalization hearing, and in February 1981 had John Demjanjuk stripped of his American citizenship and declared a Nazi war criminal who had lied his way into the United States. Following five years of failed appeals and incarceration in federal prisons, John Demjanjuk this year was extradited to Israel to be put into the dock as an accused mass murderer in the most famous Nazi war crimes trial in Jerusalem since Adolf Eichmann's.
Four years ago, while a columnist, I read a news report of the infamous "Nazi butcher" still living in Cleveland. It quoted his lawyer as insisting that Demjanjuk was a victim of mistaken identity. After a phone call to that lawyer, subsequent calls, radio interviews, correspondence with Demjanjuk's family — and amassing a file of clippings, correspondence and court records sent by the handful of believers in John Demjanjuk's innocence — I have come to believe with them that John Demjanjuk is not the bestial victimizer of men, women and children of the Treblinka killing ground, but a victim himself of a miscarriage of justice. Hence, this article.
Astonishing as it may seem, John Demjanjuk's cries of innocence are today being accorded by the people and press of Israel — the land of Yad Vashem — the fair and sympathetic and extended hearing they were consistently denied in his own adopted country.
To appreciate the emotion and passion [illegible] one must understand [illegible] A. Ryan Jr., former head of the Office of Special Investigations, writes in "Quiet Neighbors," Treblinka was perhaps the greatest killing field in history. In an area smaller than 50 acres, 1 million Jews were done to death between July 1942 and August 1943. The murderers of the 1 million — fewer than 50 Treblinka inmates survived, writes Ryan — were some 20 Germans and 80 Ukrainians, assisted by several hundred "work-Jews" forced to pull from the gas chambers the corpses of family and friends and burn and bury the remains. When Treblinka was evacuated in September 1943, the Germans bulldozed the camp into oblivion and destroyed all evidence that it ever existed. No trace remains.
The case against Demjanjuk is the centerpiece of Ryan's book, the altar piece of his career hunting down Nazi war criminals for the Department of justice.
Demjanjuk's story, to which he adheres to this day, is that he was a Ukrainian conscript in the Red Army when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. Wounded by shrapnel in the early fighting, he was hospitalized for four months, released, sent back to the front lines, captured by the Germans in the Crimea in May 1942 and sent to several POW-labor camps — first, Rovno, then the huge prisoners' complex at Chelm in Poland. In mid-1944, he was transferred to Graz in Austria, where he was [illegible] into an anti-Soviet Ukrainian unit, eventually fighting with the "Vlasow Army," which defended Prague against the advancing Russians. His unit went over to the allied side in Bavaria at war's end.
Ryan accepts Demjanjuk's story — up until the summer of 1942. Following that, however, Ryan puts Demjanjuk directly outside the gas chambers at Treblinka, where Ryan says, eight-and-a-half times as many men, women and children were done to death in 13 months by Ivan the Terrible and his murderous henchmen as perished in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Yet, there are reasons why that handful of Americans — and a growing number of Israelis — believe the 66-year-old man in the dock this coming month in Jerusalem is innocent — a decent and honest family man whose life has been destroyed by Soviet malice and American gullibility.
Could it be that five survivors of the Holocaust are as mistaken in identifying Cleveland's John Demjanjuk as the Butcher of Treblinka as 11 Holocaust survivors — and even Simon Wiesenthal — were in identifying Chicago's Frank Walus as the Butcher of Kielce, Poland? For six years, Walus' life was a living hell because of the testimony of such "eyewitnesses." Finally, overwhelming proof turned up that all were dead wrong, that Walus had spent the entire war in Germany as a farm laborer, that he was too short (5 feet 4), too young and of the wrong nationality (Polish) even to belong to the Gestapo.
Here are some of the grounds for doubting Demjanjuk's guilt.
In the U.S. proceedings that cost Demjanjuk his citizenship, Rosenberg alleged that "Ivan the Terrible" personally murdered two of his cousins at Treblinka — a charge oddly left out of his December 1947 affidavit.
In brief, as many Treblinka survivors claim "Ivan" was killed in 1943 as say he survived the war. And the number who do not identify Demjanjuk as "Ivan" far exceeds the number who do. Upon such testimony, should this man be sent to his death?
Consider. First, one expert who examined the card found that an "umlaut" was missing on a word on the ID card, and that the card used, instead of a separate letter, a combination of letters not common in German until about 1960. Second, the former paymaster at Trawniki claims he never saw a card like this at the camp: "Missing is the date of issue, missing is the place of issue, missing is the officer's signature." Third, the photograph of Demjanjuk on the card has been tampered with; parts are blocked out. Demjanjuk — from a blowup of the photo — is wearing a Russian tunic. Fourth, the photograph was obviously stapled to some other document before being placed on the card. Fifth, the seals on the card are misaligned — as though separate documents were placed together. Sixth, the ID card gives Demjanjuk's height as roughly 5 feet 9; he is actually 6 feet 1. Seventh, we have no card. The Soviets have only provided a photostatic copy.
(In 1981, Ryan writes, experts for the prosecution were given an opportunity to examine the card at the Soviet Embassy in Washington and declared it to be authentic. The original defense attorneys, he adds, were given the same opportunity. Then, however, the Soviets took the card back to Moscow.)
Is it plausible that this 22-year-old Ukrainian conscript, captured in the Crimea in May of 1942, could have become, within months, the legendary monster at Treblinka, 1,000 kilometers away — from whose barbarities even the seasoned killers of the Third Reich recoiled in horror?
Assume Demjanjuk is the mass murderer, the sadist who beat men to death with a six-foot length of pipe, mutilated women and shoved thousands of children into the gas [?] chamber. Would he not, on entering the United States, have quickly changed his last name from the distinctive, recognizable Demjanjuk when he changed his first from Ivan to John?
If Ivan the Terrible was to Treblinka what the Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele, was to Auschwitz, why did his name not appear on any known list of Nazi war criminals?
The prosecution counters: Why would the KGB go out of its way to frame an auto worker for the Ford Motor Co. who was neither an outspoken anti-Communist, nor a leader in the American-Ukrainian community? Cui bono? Who benefits? Excellent question.
This is what Demjanjuk's defenders believe to have happened: Several years after he settled in the U.S., Demjanjuk's wife went to see his mother in the Ukraine, to tell her her son was alive, that she had grandchildren in America. Word spread through the village: Ivan Demjanjuk survived! Which came as a shock to Soviet authorities — who had been paying a pension to the mother for her son missing in action in The Great Patriotic War. The KGB came to the house, confiscated all family records and photographs — and took away her pension. Within two years, News from the Ukraine — the same publication the KGB used in an effort to frame another Ukrainian-American, Ivan Stebelsky of Denver, as a Nazi war criminal — charged that John Demjanjuk, living in Cleveland, was a Nazi collaborator.
When the Office of Special Investigations was organized in 1979, it took custody of the records from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, including the News from the Ukraine charge against Demjanjuk and the reports from Israel that several Treblinka survivors had identified him as Ivan the Terrible after viewing a single wallet-size photo of Demjanjuk from his 1951 visa.
At that point, Ryan, in the opinion of Demjanjuk's defenders, played directly into the hands of the KGB. As Ryan himself writes in "Quiet Neighbors," Norman Moscowitz — assigned to the Demjanjuk case — asked Moscow for help: "Moscowitz sent a cable to our embassy in Moscow. Did the Soviets have records of Trawniki? Did any mention a man named Ivan Demjanjuk?"
Months later, Ryan got the answer he had been praying for. By an incredible coincidence, not only did the Soviet Union have old forgotten files of Trawniki; they had found a training camp identification card of the very Ivan Demjanjuk about whom Ryan had inquired. With Demjanjuk's picture on it! Ryan was exultant. And why not?
The KGB, which had first fingered Demjanjuk as a war criminal, had now — guided by the brilliant investigator-prosecutor Ryan — gone back and found in its dusty files from World War II precisely the documentary evidence Ryan suggested might be there. And it had taken only six months to find the ID card. Or, as skeptics contend — only six months for the KGB forgery factory to create one.
Thus far, the Soviets have refused to turn over the original card to Israel for the prosecution of Demjanjuk. Why? Unless the card is a KGB forgery that would blow the 7-year Demjanjuk case to smithereens — and turn press attention upon those who forged it, and [illegible].
In the last nine years, John Demjanjuk's life has been utterly, totally, destroyed. He has been humiliated, disgraced, vilified as virtually no other American of his time; bankrupted, imprisoned, extradited to stand trial in the same cage as Adolf Eichmann. A stigma has been placed on his family and name forever. He is going down in history as one of the great sadistic monsters in one of the greatest mass atrocities in human history. If John Demjanjuk is "Ivan the Terrible" he deserves it all. If he is not, then — in this writer's judgment — John Demjanjuk may be the victim of an American Dreyfus case.
Patrick Buchanan is an assistant to President Reagan. He notes that the views, analysis and conclusions above are his own, and not necessarily those of the administration.
Other questions arise.