Three Israeli judges are convinced that the real "Ivan the Terrible," the "butcher of Treblinka," is behind bars and justly condemned by them to die by hanging. When I think back to last November, to my appearance as a defense expert in the John Demjanjuk case in Jerusalem, and to the volumes of documents, scientific experiments and demonstrative evidence that these same judges excluded from my testimony, it is apparent to me that Israel could be prepared to put an innocent man to death.
Since coming to the United States in 1951 and until his deportation to Israel in 1987, Mr. Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian by birth, lived in Cleveland, Ohio, where he raised a family and led an upstanding life.
The genesis of this case is in the turbulent events of World War II, when Mr. Demjanjuk was drafted into the Soviet Red Army and subsequently captured by the Germans.
During the late 1970s, the U.S. Justice Department assembled evidence which it contended showed Mr. Demjanjuk to be the infamous, blood-thirsty "Ivan the Terrible" of Treblinka. Mr. Demjanjuk, who is now awaiting the outcome of an appeal of his death sentence, has insisted that he is the victim of mistaken identity.
The testimony which I planned to give, but which the Israeli court refused to admit, would have indicated that Mr. Demjanjuk is the victim of an intentional forgery by the KGB.
Technically, there were only two types of evidence that linked Mr. Demjanjuk to "Ivan the Terrible": the five eyewitnesses, whose emotional testimony the judges found convincing; and the Trawniki identification card. The latter displays what purports to be Mr. Demjanjuk's photo and signature, three German seals and two German officers' signature. This card was the one piece of evidence introduced at the trial which was not subject to the influences of emotion and the blurring of memory.
In determining historical authenticity from a forensic standpoint, it is necessary to prove that the entire document is genuine, not just part of it. An authentic historical document that has been altered is no longer authentic. Parts of the Trawniki card could have been in existence in the early 1940s, as the prosecution contended. However, other parts of the card have definitely been altered.
A major problem with the card was that, until its arrival at the Soviet Embassy in Washington in 1981, no historian or document expert had ever seen it or one similar to it. Therefore, there were no standards against which to compare it — a crucial factor in determining whether a document is genuine or counterfeit.
After examining the four types of fountain-pen inks on the card, U.S. and Israeli authorities determined that the inks did not contain any component that did not exist in the early 1940s. Of these four inks, three contained iron, which has been common in ink for centuries, yet the fourth, the ink used in the "Demjanjuk signature," contained no iron. The reason this is significant is that, without iron, the Demjanjuk signature could not be accurately dated.
The fact that an ink was in use during World War II does not mean that a particular sample containing those components was so used, incidentally. In my kitchen in Phoenix, I created four types of inks that, from their components, could have existed in the early 1940s. Using these, I forged the signatures of the two German officers which appear on the Trawniki card. The chief of the Israeli documentation laboratory complimented me on my forgeries!
Fiber analysis proved that the card itself was manufactured in the 1940s. This was not surprising, because experts believe that about 5,000 of these cards were printed by the Nazis. When the Soviet Red Army stormed the Treblinka and Trawniki camps, they could easily have captured these documents, creating for themselves a reservoir of ID card forms which they could subsequently "issue" to whomever they desired. If that is what occurred, it would have been virtually impossible to prove forensically whether the card was prepared in 1942 or sometime later.
Although I was not permitted to perform any destructive testing (under an agreement between the Soviets and Israelis), I did manage to lift up one corner of the photo enough to see that it had been glued to the card at least twice. This fact is significant because of the ease with which a composite photo can be made.
Using readily available photographic techniques in my laboratory in Phoenix, I had my own photograph superimposed into a German uniform, meaning that my face was substituted, using airbrushing, for the face of a German soldier, to create an eerily convincing likeness of myself as a Nazi. This demonstration, however, was banned from evidence by the Israeli judges. Coincidentally, the "Demjanjuk photograph" on the ID card contains the same featureless, white background as typically results from airbrushing.
There is further evidence that the photo was not originally on the ID card, since the upper portion of a seal located on a corner of the photo does not align with the lower portion on the card.
The photograph also has two mysterious staple holes, which do not pierce the underlying card, showing conclusively that the photo had been attached to another document prior to being glued to the ID card. The holes have traces of a purple ink, identical to the ink used in 1948 KGB notations on the Trawniki card. An inference may be drawn that the Soviet ink has bled through the staple holes from the back of the photo. If so, this would be proof positive that the Soviets attached the photo to the card.
As previously noted, the only part of the ID card that needed to be forged was the Demjanjuk signature. Coincidentally, that is the one feature which both prosecution and defense agree may not be genuine. Based on the Demjanjuk handwriting samples available to both sides, the "Demjanjuk signature" on the Trawniki card is not Mr. Demjanjuk's. It contains, for example, a classic swirling Slavic "D" and all of the letters are connected — elements that are absent from every sample of Mr. Demjanjuk's signature which I have seen.
The prosecution conceded that it could not authenticate the Demjanjuk signature — the one step logically necessary to authenticate the card. In an incredible feat of illogic, the prosecution contended that, had pre-1950s Demjanjuk signature samples been available, they would have resembled the signature on the card.
This argument, based not on science but on speculation, violates the basic precept of my profession, which is that a positive handwriting ID must be demonstrable for a signature to count as authentic.
The only way we will know for certain if the Trawniki card is genuine is to gain access to the KGB archives, the only place where the truth is hidden. The restrictions upon my testimony findings which occurred in the Demjanjuk trial would never have occurred in a capital case in an American court of law. Sentencing a man to the gallows on the basis of "it could have been" is immoral by anyone's standards.
William J. Flynn, a forensic document examiner for the past 20 years, is vice-president of the American Board of Forensic Documents Examiners. He exposed a purported Mormon document as a forgery in the 1986 "White Salamander" murder case in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The article above appeared in the July 10 issue of The Arizona Republic.