Philip Roth on John Demjanjuk: Atah shakran!
(from his Operation Shylock: A Confession, 1993)

Philip Roth "But Demjanjuk was no longer merely grinning, he was laughing, laughing aloud at Rosenberg's words, at Rosenberg's rage, laughing at the court, laughing at the trial, laughing at the absurdity of these monstrous charges, at the outrageousness of a family man from a Cleveland suburb, a Ford factory employee, a church member, prized by his friends, trusted by his neighbors, adored by his family, of such a man as this being mistaken for the psychotic ghoul who prowled the Polish forests forty-five years ago as Ivan the Terrible, the vicious, sadistic murderer of innocent Jews."  Philip Roth
The passages below are taken from Philip Roth, Operation Shylock: A Confession, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1993, ISBN 0-671-70376-5.  Operation Shylock is a work of fiction; strictly speaking, therefore, we are not safe to credit any of the events described below as factual, or any of the thoughts as ones that occurred as depicted.

Philip Roth's Note to the Reader on p. 399 supports this view, but only in part:

This book is a work of fiction.  ... [T]he verbatim minutes of the January 27, 1988, morning session of the trial of John Demjanjuk in Jerusalem District Court provided the courtroom exchanges quoted in chapter 9.  Otherwise the names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual events or locales or person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.  This confession is false.

But even in the midst of the above protestations that this is a work of fiction, we see indications that it is not that entirely, that Philip Roth does attempt at least in places to write a faithful account of the Demjanjuk trial.  One such indication we see above in Roth's acknowledgement that the courtroom exchanges in chapter 9 were based on court transcripts.  A second indication is that Roth includes "A Confession" as part of his title.  A third indication is that he includes a lengthy footnote on page 298 which accurately relates the acid attack on John Demjanjuk's lawyer, Yoram Sheftel.  A fourth indication perhaps the strongest one is that within the book's preface, Philip Roth states that:

The commentary on the Demjanjuk case reflects accurately and candidly what I was thinking in January 1988, nearly five years before Soviet evidence introduced on appeal by the defense led the Israeli Supreme Court to consider vacating the death sentence handed down in 1988 by the Jerusalem District Court, whose sessions I attended and describe here.  (p. 13)

It is tempting to take the above statement by itself as proof that Roth attempts to make his description of the Demjanjuk trial accurate; however, there remains the possibility that the preface may itself be part of the novel.  But if the preface (which indicates that the book is in partly factual) may be a part of the novel, then why not also the Note to the Reader (which indicates that the book is largely fictional)?

Thus, what is fact and what fiction is far from clear.  Perhaps a conservative attitude on our part would be to assume that when Roth describes thoughts, feelings, speculations in the six passages below, we do not in fact know if any given individual experienced these at any given time.  Their use to us, rather, lies in their providing an insight into what some people somewhere might have thought, felt, or speculated, or what it was conceivable for some people to have thought, felt, or speculated.

When it comes to the Chumak cross-examination of Treblinka death commando Eliahu Rosenberg in the fifth passage quoted below, however, my tendency is to credit it as faithful because it is the chapter 9 courtroom exchange for which Roth acknowledges having relied on the court transcript, and because Roth does also say above that he did attend court sessions, though whether he personally witnessed this particular courtroom exchange, or merely imagined it from the transcript, is impossible to say.  Students of the Demjanjuk trial will recall that Eliahu Rosenberg emerged as the star among the five Jewish eyewitnesses against John Demjanjuk.  The cross-examination of Rosenberg concerns the matter of his 1947 affidavit in which he testified that he had witnessed the killing of Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka in the course of an inmate uprising.  Given that Rosenberg was now testifying that John Demjanjuk was the living Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka, he was asked to do some explaining.  Were it not for the fact that Eliahu Rosenberg was struggling to win the execution of John Demjanjuk, one might be disposed to view Rosenberg as a pitiable character, pathologically immersed in his fantasties, quite oblivious of the need to demonstrate consistency in establishing his own credibility, as instanced in Pat Buchanan's reminder that this same 1947 affidavit of Rosenberg's clashed more than once with his later testimony:

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.

To earn the categorization of "demented" or "insane," one does not always have to demonstrate pathology of the same severity as Eliahu Rosenberg demonstrated during his career as a Holocaust witness.  To observers who are less predisposed to invoke the medical model, the categorization "evil" may seem more appropriate than "demented" or "insane."  Israeli reliance on testimony such as Rosenberg's calls forth the speculation that Israel's brain power may have been depleted by the brain drain fleeing the country such as to leave a noticeable competence gap, and that what brain power remains in Israel may be devoted disproportionately to military planning and weapons sales to third-world dictators, these two demands combined leaving an insufficient quantity to competently manage its justice system.  The farce of the Rosenberg testimony is repeated in the testimony of the other prosecution witnesses Pinchas Epstein, for example, who at the Israeli trial corroborated Rosenberg's identification of John Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka, happened to have sworn an affidavit in 1947 detailing the atrocities he had witnessed at Treblinka but in that affidavit Epstein never mentioned the existence of any "Ivan the Terrible."  Is Pinchas Epstein sick, or is he evil? Take your choice.

As for the sixth quoted passage below the one describing the incident involving the priest handing out pamphlets my guess is that it is in large part imaginary, and I am content to rely on it as no more than a reflection of what some people somewhere may have been thinking and saying.

Operation Shylock contains a few passages which strike me as vicious parodies of John Demjanjuk, and these I do not reproduce below.  However, the book also contains many even more vicious parodies of Jews, and for that reason I view Philip Roth's treatment as on the whole balanced, and his parodies as falling within the range of poetic license.

In sum, perhaps the reader will find the six passages below insightful, and perhaps he will particularly appreciate the masterfully-written account of the Chumak cross examination of Treblinka death commando Eliahu Rosenberg.

Incidentally, the reader may also notice that Philip Roth's words demonstrate the truth of an assertion made during my discussion of the 1905 Alphonsenpogrom to the effect that participants in Ukrainian-Jewish conflict do not divide cleanly along ethnic lines.  In the case of the Demjanjuk affair, it appears that the majority of Ukrainians together with a handful of Jews opposed the destructive work of another handful of Jews.  The majority of Jews were silent, their unpublicized sympathies probably lying with the prosecution, or if opposed to the prosecution, then refusing to violate loshon hora, the Jewish code of silence.

(1) Public Relations Stunt

"Of course Ukrainian anti-Semitism is real.  There are many causes that we all know, having to do with the role the Jews played there in the economic structure, with the cynical role assigned to them by Stalin in the farm collectivization all this is clear.  But whether this ... Ukrainian is Ivan the Terrible is not at all clear, it can't be clear after forty years, and so, if you have any honesty as a nation, any respect left at all for the law, you let him go.  If you must have your vengeance, you send him back to Ukraine and let the Russians deal with him that should be satisfaction enough.  But to try him here in the courtroom and over the radio and on the television and in the papers, this has only one purpose the public-relations stunt à la the Holocaust-monger Begin and the gangster Shamir; public relations to justify Jewish might, to justify Jewish rule by perpetuating into the next one hundred millennia the image of the Jewish victim.  But is public relations the purpose of a system of criminal justice?  The criminal-justice system has a legal purpose, not a public-relations purpose.  To educate the public?  No, that's the purpose of an educational system.  I repeat: Demjanjuk is here to maintain the mythology that is this country's lifeblood."  (p. 134)

(2) To be Represented by a Jewish Lawyer

"To be represented by a Jewish lawyer this way there is at least a chance in the courtroom.  Even Demjanjuk thinks this way.  Demjanjuk fired his Mr. O'Brien and hired Sheftel because he too is deluded enough to think it will help.  I heard the other day that Demjanjuk told Sheftel, 'If I had a Jewish lawyer to begin with, I'd never be in this trouble now.'  ...  Sheftel is the antiestablishment superstar he'll squeeze those Ukrainians for all they're worth.  He'll make half a million on this Treblinka guard."  (p. 146)

(3) Nothing Less than the Dreyfus Trial

Demjanjuk's lawyers had already challenged the integrity of the proceedings publicly, daring to announce to three Jewish judges in a Jewish courtroom that the prosecution of John Demjanjuk for crimes committed at Treblinka had the characteristics of nothing less than the Dreyfus trial.  Wouldn't [it become apparent] that it was impossible for anyone with a name suffixed juk to receive justice from Jews, that Demjanjuk was the Jews' scapegoat, that the Jewish state was a lawless state, that the "show trial" convened in Jerusalem was intended to perpetuate the self-justifying Jewish myth of victimization, that revenge alone was the Jews' objective?  (pp. 248-249)

(4) The Death Penalty Outside

"Philip, while this court for Demjanjuk is carefully weighing evidence for the benefit of the world press, scrutinizing meticulously, with all kinds of experts, the handwriting and the photograph and the imprint of the paper clip and the age of the ink and the paper stock, while this charade of Israeli justice is being played out on the radio and the television and in the world press, the death penalty is being enacted all over the West Bank.  Without experts.  Without trials.  Without justice.  With live bullets."  (p. 272)

(5) Chumak Cross-Examines Rosenberg

"Now," Chumak [acting for John Demjanjuk] was saying, "now this is really the heart of the whole exercise, Mr. Rosenberg the next line of what you wrote in December of 1945."  He asked Rosenberg to read aloud what came next.

"'We then went into the engine room, to Ivan [the Terrible of Treblinka, who John Demjanjuk was on trial for being], he who was sleeping there '" Rosenberg slowly translated from the Yiddish in a forceful voice, "'and Gustav hit him with a shovel on the head.  And he remained lying down for keeps.'"

"In other words, he was dead?" Chumak asked.

"Yes, correct."

"Sir, on December 20, 1945, in your handwriting?"



In front of me young Demjanjuk [John Demjanjuk's son who was attending the trial] was shaking his head in disbelief at Rosenberg's contention that eyewitness testimony recorded in 1945 could be based on unreliable evidence.  Rosenberg was lying and, thought the son of the accused, lying because of his own unappeasable guilt.  Because of how he had managed to live while all the others died.  Because of what the Nazis had ordered him to do with the bodies of his fellow Jews and what he obediently had done, loathsome as it was for him to do it.  Because to survive not only was it necessary to steal, which he did, which of course they all did all the time from the dead, from the dying, from the living, from the ill, from one another and everyone but also it was necessary to bribe their torturers, to betray their friends, to lie to everyone, to take every humiliation in silence, like a whipped and broken animal.  He was lying because he was worse than an animal, because he'd become a monster who had burned the little bodies of Jewish children, thousands upon thousands of them burned by him for kindling, and the only means he has to justify becoming a monster is to lay his sins on my father's heard.  My innocent father is the scapegoat not merely for those millions who died but for all the Rosenbergs who did the monstrous things they did to survive and now cannot live with their monstrous guilt.  ...


Chumak was now asking Rosenberg, "So how can you possibly come to this court and point your finger at this gentleman when you wrote in 1945 that Ivan was killed by Gustav?"


"Sir, you wrote in your handwriting, in Yiddish not in German, not in Polish, not in English, but in your own language you wrote that he was hit on the head by Gustav with a spade, leaving him lying there for keeps.  You wrote that.  And you told us that you wrote the truth when you made these statements in 1945.  Are you saying that's not true?"

"No, it is true, this is the truth what it says here but what the boys told us was not the truth.  They wanted to boast.  They were lending expression to their dream.  They aspired to, their fondest wish was, to kill this person but they hadn't."

Why didn't you write then," Chumak asked him, "it was the boys' fondest wish to kill this man and I heard later in the forest that he was killed in such and such a way or in another way.  Why didn't you write it all down, all these versions?"

Rosenberg replied, "I preferred to write this particular version."


When I looked at Demjanjuk I saw him smiling directly back, not at me, of course, but at his loyal son, seated in the chair in front of me.  Demjanjuk was amused by the absurdity of the testimony, tremendously amused by it, even triumphant-looking because of it....  ...

"Now," Chumak continued, "based on the 'version' as you now call it, this version of Ivan being killed, he was struck in the head with a spade.  Would you therefore expect, sir, the man who was struck with the spade to have a scar or a fractured skull or some serious injury to his head?  If that happened to Ivan in the engine room?"

"Of course," replied Rosenberg, "if I were sure he had been hit and in accordance with the version I wrote down, he was then dead where is the scar?  But he wasn't there.  And he wasn't there because he wasn't there."  Rosenberg looked beyond Chumak now and, pointing at Demjanjuk, addressed him directly.  "And if he had been there, he would not be sitting across from me.  This hero is grinning!" Rosenberg cried in disgust.

But Demjanjuk was no longer merely grinning, he was laughing, laughing aloud at Rosenberg's words, at Rosenberg's rage, laughing at the court, laughing at the trial, laughing at the absurdity of these monstrous charges, at the outrageousness of a family man from a Cleveland suburb, a Ford factory employee, a church member, prized by his friends, trusted by his neighbors, adored by his family, of such a man as this being mistaken for the psychotic ghoul who prowled the Polish forests forty-five years ago as Ivan the Terrible, the vicious, sadistic murderer of innocent Jews.  Either he was laughing because a man wholly innocent of any such crimes had no choice but to laugh after a year of these nightmarish courtroom shenanigans and all that the judiciary of the state of Israel had put him and his poor family through or he was laughing because he was guilty of these crimes, because he was Ivan the Terrible, and Ivan the Terrible was not simply a psychotic ghoul but the devil himself.  Because, if Demjanjuk was not innocent, who but the devil could have laughed aloud like that at Rosenberg?

Still laughing, Demjanjuk rose suddenly from his chair, and, speaking toward the open microphone on the defense lawyers' table, he shouted at Rosenberg, "Atah shakran!" and laughed even louder.

Demjanjuk had spoken in Hebrew for the second time the man accused of being Ivan the Terrible had addressed this Treblinka Jew who claimed to be his victim in the language of the Jews.

Justice Levin spoke next, also in Hebrew.  On my headphones I heard the translation.  "The accused's words," Justice Levin noted, "which have been placed on record which were, 'You are a liar!' have been have gone on record."  (pp. 294-301)

(6) The Crucifixion of Jesus

"Why," I said to him [a Ukrainian priest who was picking up pro-Demjanjuk pamphlets that had been knocked out of his hands by a giant Jew], "why, in all of this world, do you come here with those pamphlets on a day like this one?"

He'd fallen to his knees to gather together the pamphlets more easily, and from his knees he answered me.  "To save Jews."  A little of his strength seemed to return when he repeated to me, "To save you Jews."

"You might do better to worry about yourself."  ...

"If they convict an innocent man", the priest said ..., "this will have the same result as the Crucifixion of Jesus."  (p. 307)