by Bozhena Olshaniwsky
Bozhena Olshaniwsky is president of UNCHAIN (Ukrainian National Center: History and Information Network), a national organization of Americans of Ukrainian descent dedicated to providing accurate and timely information on issues relating to Ukraine or Ukrainians. UNCHAIN may be reached at P.0. Box 3OO, Newark, N.J. 07101; (201) 373-9729.
A large segment of the Ukrainian American community has reacted to the verdict in the John Demjanjuk trial in Israel with incredulity and outrage.
Prior to the trial in Israel, only a minority of Ukrainians were convinced of Mr. Demjanjuk's innocence. Those included family, friends and neighbors in Cleveland. Most Ukrainian Americans, however, reserved judgement. Everyone believed that Mr. Demjanjuk deserved a fair trial, and many contributed to his defense so that he might have a chance at one, but the general expectation was that the trial in Israel would either result in the prosecution's presenting a highly convincing case or that, in the absence of one, the trial would result in acquittal and the whole matter would, after 10 years, finally come to a conclusion.
They did not expect the trial to become an exercise in ritual sacrifice. They had accepted at face value the repeated claims about the similarity of Israeli justice to American justice. They expected a dignified and dispassionate inquiry into the only question at issue: were the identities of John Demjanjuk and the Treblinka guard named "Ivan the Terrible" the same?
What they saw, instead, was a public spectacle, the explicit purpose of which was to teach new generations of Israelis about the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. What they saw was a trial held in a converted movie theatre through which 250,000 Israelis paraded, a trial during which spectators openly voiced calls for vengeance and a trial that was presided over by a judicial panel that included persons who had lost their families during the Holocaust.
The prosecution's case was based on the identification testimony of five Holocaust survivors who claimed to be able to recognize Mr. Demjanjuk after the passage of over 40 years. Yet, the judges were not in the least disturbed by the fact that eyewitness testimony of many years past is notoriously unreliable. Nor were they disturbed by the fact that eyewitness testimony associated with traumatic events can often further be distorted.
Nor were they disturbed that in an earlier trial in Chicago, a group of Holocaust survivors who swore that a Polish American had committed atrocities were later proven to have been completely mistaken. The Israeli judges declared that evidence of what occurred in the Chicago trial was totally irrelevant. They also were not in the least bit swayed by the fact that in contrast to the five Treblinka survivors who had said they recognized Mr. Demjanjuk, 12 other Treblinka survivors either misidentified photographs of Mr. Demjanjuk or were not able to identify him at all.
Instead, the judges came up with the novel theory that trauma actually aids recollection, at least as applied to the five survivors who alleged that Mr. Demjanjuk was "Ivan," and found that "anyone who experiences these shocks, these terrible experiences at the death Camp Treblinka can never forget what they've seen." And it was on this basis that the court reached its verdict "without hesitation or doubt."
The court also based its decision on the basis of a German identity card provided by the Soviet Union on which it was stated that an Ivan Demjanjuk had been at Trawniki, a German training camp, and at Sobibor, a different death camp. It was never possible to authenticate where the card had come from nor where it had been kept. The prosecution introduced expert testimony in support of the card's authenticity. The defense-introduced expert testimony stated that the card was a forgery. Dr. Julius Grant, the English expert who discovered that the "Hitler Diaries" were a fake, testified that the Trawniki card was a forgery. Furthermore, the height listed on the card did not correspond to Mr. Demjanjuk's true height. And, in 1986 a Soviet-Ukrainian newspaper published an article about Demjanjuk titled "The Vampire Lives in Cleveland" that contained a reproduction of the same identification card that contained a photograph of a different person alleged to be Demjanjuk. Other markings on the card appearing in the Soviet article were different as well.
Yet despite all of this, the Israeli court concluded "decisively and without hesitation or doubt" not only that the Card was authentic but that, despite the card's not connecting the person to whom it was issued (assuming it was genuine) with Treblinka, that it was the second major piece of evidence that established that Mr. Demjanjuk was "Ivan the Terrible" of Treblinka.
The Nazi Holocaust was a horrific event that not only resulted in the mass murder of Jews and others but also sprang from the incredible impulse to annihilate all of the Jews in Europe. It has, not surprisingly, seared the collective consciousness of post-Holocaust Jewry. It has also generated reverberations that have produced much good. In a compensatory vein it has led to the payment of billions of dollars of reparations both to individual Jews and to Israel. It also produced hundreds of books, movies and lectures, and has led to plans for the construction of multimillion dollar memorial museum complexes in New York, Washington and Los Angeles. Tragically, it has also produced a travesty of justice.
There was perhaps something implausible about the Demjanjuk case from the outset. How likely is it that the Germans would appoint a 22-year-old former Soviet prisoner of war with a fourth grade education and with little or no knowledge of German to play the role that the historical "Ivan" played.
Then if Mr. Demjanjuk were really "Ivan," the killer of 850,000, why had he not fled after the war to the jungles of South America? Why had he not even changed his name after immigrating to the United States? And why had he not fled at any time during the first five or six years or proceedings against him, when that would have been easy to do?
Also completely skewed is the current Israeli attempt to portray Mr. Demjanjuk as the epitome of Nazi evil and a proponent of the "Final Solution." That is nothing short of grotesque both in light of how the Nazis treated the Slavs as subhumans and in light of the fact, acknowledged by all, that Mr. Demjanjuk had himself been interned by the Germans as a POW.
Lastly, there is the issue of due process, as guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. John Demjanjuk was, after all, an American citizen. He lost his citizenship and was extradited, tried and sentenced to death in Israel without anywhere ever having had a jury trial, the most important single defense in the Anglo-American system of justice against the awesome powers that governments can bring to bear against an individual. Yet, we continue to be told by a chorus of insistent voices that justice was done.
Apologists for the trial are likely to continue to try and convince everyone of its propriety. History, however, is likely to show that it created a deep black stain on everything that remembering the Holocaust used to represent.