Richard Lessner   New Perspectives   May 1987   Eleven eyewitnesses were wrong
Ivan was terrible, but do they have the right man?

By Richard Lessner

(Reprinted from The Arizona Republic)

Has our horror and revulsion for the Nazi Holocaust overcome our American sense of justice?

Maybe so, and perhaps John Demjanjuk is a victim of our misplaced outrage and Soviet duplicity.

In 1981, Demjanjuk, a naturalized Ukrainian-American auto-worker in Cleveland, was stripped of his citizenship and deported to Israel where he is now standing trial for war crimes.  The accusations against Demjanjuk are chilling.  He is charged with being the notorious "Ivan the Terrible," a sadistic Ukrainian collaborator, a guard at the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland where more than one million Jews were murdered in an abattoir of less than 50 acres in area, the greatest killing field in history.

The evidence against Demjanjuk seems irrefutable: five eyewitnesses and his Nazi camp guard identification card.

Demjanjuk claims he is the victim of mistaken identity, that he was a conscript in the Red Army, was captured by the Germans in 1942, spent two years in PoW camps and was recruited into the "Vlasow Army" in the defense of Prague against the Russians until his unit surrendered to the Allies.  He came to the U.S. in 1952.

The original charges against Demjanjuk came from a Soviet publication which had previously and unsuccessfully made false accusations against exiled Ukrainians.  Prior to that, his name does not appear on a single list of alleged war criminals.  When the Justice Department established the Office of Special Investigations in 1979, an inquiry was sent to the Soviets asking if they had evidence to back their allegations.  Six months later they produced, voila, Demjanjuk's Nazi identity card.

Consider, however, the contradictory nature of the evidence that is causing many even in Israel to question openly whether Demjanjuk is a victim of mistaken identity:

The Five Treblinka survivors who identified Demjanjuk from a wallet-sized photo could be mistaken.  Simon Wiesenthal and 11 "eyewitnesses" were wrong in identifying Frank Walus of Chicago as the "Butcher of Kielce."  It took six hellish years for Walus to prove beyond any doubt that he was not the accused war criminal.

Elijahu Rosenberg, the first survivor to finger Demjanjuk, testified under oath in 1947 that Ivan had been killed in a camp uprising in August 1943.  Jean-Francis Steiner's book Treblinka recounts the story of Ivan's death, as does every other history of the camp.

Several Polish survivors deny that Demjanjuk is the same man as Ivan, but they were not allowed to testify in the U.S. denaturalization hearings and will not be allowed to leave Poland to testify for the defense in Israel.  Kurt Franze, imprisoned head of the Treblinka guards, says Demjanjuk is not the Ivan he knew in the camp.  Many survivors describe in detail how Ivan died in the inmate rebellion, and only five out of 17 identify Demjanjuk as the demonic guard.

As for the Soviet-supplied identity card, no American or Israeli expert has been allowed to examine it, and only a photostat, not the original, was used in Demjanjuk's U.S. hearings and in the trial in Israel.

There are obvious irregularities in the card: In the photo Demjanjuk is wearing a Russian army tunic; portions of the photo have been blocked out; dates and signatures are missing; a paymaster where the card was supposedly issued says he never saw such a document; Demjanjuk's height is incorrect by four inches; seals are misaligned; a German word is misspelled.  The card looks like a KGB forgery, but until the Soviets allow expert examination, its authenticity will never be established.

Why would the Soviets frame Demjanjuk?  Cui bono, who benefits?  The Soviets, because they consistently have made efforts to discredit emigres in the West, to make them out to be Nazi collaborators because the exiled nationalist groups are vigorous in anti-communist activities.

Neither a false sense of necessity to prove Demjanjuk is Ivan, nor a misplaced willingness to accept Soviet evidence serves the moral interests of the United States and Israel.  The tragedy of the Holocaust should not be compounded by another.