Gitta Sereny The Plain Dealer 14-Jan-1989 Ivan the Terrible simultaneously in Poland and Italy HOME  DISINFORMATION  DEMJANJUK
Gitta Sereny   The Plain Dealer   14-Jan-1989   Ivan the Terrible simultaneously in Poland and Italy
Around 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 29, Eitan made a date with his wife to meet at 11 a.m. to buy a new suit.  An hour later, at 8:30, he apparently killed himself by jumping out of a 15th-story hotel window three blocks away from his office in central Jerusalem.
The Sereny article below constitutes Exhibit F in Edward W. Nishnic's 02-Feb-1989 letter to all members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives, which provides an excellent overview of the chief reasons for believing that the US Office of Special Investigations (OSI) suppressed or destroyed evidence that was exculpatory of accused John Demjanjuk.

January 14, 1989 THE PLAIN DEALER

New data good, bad to Demjanjuk

This month should have seen the final life-or-death decision for John Demjanjuk of Seven Hills, who last April was sentenced to death, found guilty of being the gas chamber guard "Ivan the Terrible" of Treblinka.  His appeal was set to begin Dec. 5.
But the preceding week brought two extraordinary developments: the mysterious death of defense lawyer Dov Eitan (which delayed the appeal by five months), and the emergence of a vital piece of evidence that raises doubts about the prosecution's trial tactics, demolishes its established position, and puts at grave risk that of the defense.  It may lead the appeals court to require the trial judges to reconsider their verdict.

Around 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 29, Eitan made a date with his wife to meet at 11 a.m. to buy a new suit.  An hour later, at 8:30, he apparently killed himself by jumping out of a 15th-story hotel window three blocks away from his office in central Jerusalem.

Chief defense counsel Yoram Sheftel agrees that the death is deeply mysterious, but thinks the idea of murder which was being suggested by Demjanjuk's family is grotesque.

"Of course, happening when it did, people will inevitably associate it with the Demjanjuk case, but there is nothing to substantiate that," Sheftel said.  That Monday, he said, they had "talked off and on all day, the last time on the phone at 10 p.m."

One subject of their discussion was a piece of evidence they and the other parties to the appeal had received that day.  It consists of a letter written in March 1978 by Franz Suchomel, who was an SS sergeant at Treblinka, to Dr. Pier Arrigo Carnier, who was preparing a book, "Lo Sterminio Mancato."

It deals with the fate of Italian Jews and touches only marginally on the Nazi death camps in occupied Poland and the Aktion Reinhard the extermination squads who ran them, 150 of whose members were transferred to Trieste (northern Italy) when the operation ceased in Poland.

In the letter, Suchomel twice refers quite incidentally to "Ivan" and "Nikolai" in Trieste, first as working at the notorious concentration camp for Jews, the Riseria (rice factory) at San Sabba.  Later more specifically: "Before the end of the war," he wrote, "the gas chamber-fillers from Treblinka, Ivan and Nikolai, were probably shot.  Though it has been said that they slipped over into the partisans, which I don't believe."

In establishing that Ivan was in Trieste, this letter shatters and important piece of evidence, the so-called "Danilchenko" statement dramatically presented to the court in the last days of Demjanjuk's trial and admitted only because the defense claimed it had been concealed by the Americans.

Danilchenko, a Ukrainian apparently questioned by Soviet examiners in 1979, made two important claims: that Demjanjuk had been for six months in 1943 in Sobibor (also a Nazi death camp in Poland), and that after the extermination camps of the Aktion Reinhard were dismantled that is, when Suchomel clearly places Ivan in Trieste they were transferred together to work in concentration camps in southern Germany until the end of the war.

Sheftel said that the "obviously authentic" Suchomel letter came as no surprise to him.  He had seen it earlier, in a bundle of Trieste background information handed over by the prosecution, which also contained two statements by Italian witnesses who had identified Demjanjuk from the same photographs seen by the Treblinka survivors.  One of the Italians recognized him by name.

In June 1986, the Israeli prosecutors went to Trieste to interview these men, and also obtained the Suchomel letter from Dr. Carnier.  None of this was brought out in court, primarily because the prosecution limited its case to Ivan's activities in Treblinka.

One mention of Trieste from a prosecution expert witness did become part of the trial transcript, but in the absence of supporting evidence was virtually ignored.  It was a statement by SS Sgt. Gustav Munzberger, Ivan's boss at the gas chambers.  Questioned in Germany in the early '60s, he mentioned that Ivan had been "in (his) group when (they) were transferred from Treblinka to Trieste in September 1943," and later had "slipped off into the partisans."

Sheftel and Dov Eitan had discussed the Suchomel letter "repeatedly" that critical Monday.

"We decided definitely not to make a motion to enter it in evidence," Sheftel said, "the very last time we talked."  When chief prosecutor Yona Blattman saw it that same day, he said he did not remember it previously, but that, anyway, it was for the defense, not the prosecution, to submit further evidence to the appeals court.

Without suggesting any connection between the emergence of this evidence and Eitan's death, the question does arise: Why would the two defense lawyers have found it necessary to discuss this already known letter repeatedly that last day of Eitan's life before "definitely deciding" at 10 p.m. not to enter it in evidence?  And why was and is the prosecution at such pains to avoid recording the presence of "Ivan" in Trieste whether or not Demjanjuk is "Ivan"?

The reason for the defense's apprehension seems clear.  Suchomel's letter, corroborating the Munzberger statement, would lead inevitably to the other Trieste evidence, which rightly or wrongly identifies Demjanjuk by name as having been at San Sabba.

To understand the prosecution's position, one must analyze the role of the Danilchenko evidence in starting the Demjanjuk case.

In autumn of 1975, an article in a Ukrainian language weekly published in New York by an American communist of Ukrainian descent, Michael Hanusiak, cited a report he claimed to have found in a Soviet archive from a 1950s war crimes trial.  It says a former Sobibor camp guard, Ignat Danilchenko, had allegedly named Ivan Demjanjuk as a fellow guard.  Hanusiak added that he "had been shown" an ID document in the Soviet Union bearing Demjanjuk's name and photograph, from the SS training camp Trawniki in Poland.

Over the next three years, however, survivors from Treblinka were unexpectedly to place him at Treblinka, not Sobibor.  The American prosecutors preparing the denaturalization case against Demjanjuk applied repeatedly in 1979 to the Russians for permission to question Danilchenko.  The requests were refused (which later led the Americans and allegedly, eventually the Israeli prosecution to discard his evidence as uncheckable), but the Soviets offered instead to requestion him themselves.

In the transcript they sent to the Americans, Danilchenko confirmed that he was posted to Sobibor in March 1943 and met "Ivan Dem'yanyuk" working as an ordinary guard.  He claimed that they had been together at Sobibor until "March or April 1944" (impossible, as the camp was dismantled in October 1943), then transferred to southern Germany.  Danilchenko is alleged to have recognized Demjanjuk in a photograph in his Red Army uniform.

Prosecutors requested time to consider the authenticity of the Danilchenko document, but unfortunately for all concerned this was denied.

The judges seemed to feel, above all, that the development might break the central deadlock of the trial: Demjanjuk's desperate denial that he had anything at all to do with exterminations, his implausible alibi that he was just a prisoner of war.

They asked the defense to seriously consider changing its client's alibi.  If even now he were to plead guilty to having been at Sobibor, they explained, such a plea would take precedence over anything else.  But if he maintained an alibi which, over the coming weeks, the court might have to conclude was untrue, major weight would have to be given to the eyewitness testimony.

But the defense had no confidence in the court's good faith.  Demjanjuk, they declared, would stick with his alibi.  Six weeks later, the judges returned a verdict of guilty on all charges.

The Danilchenko statement had clearly given them trouble, but having been presented with it by the defense as showing obstruction by the American judiciary, they apparently felt reluctant to reject it.  Demjanjuk had been posted to both Sobibor and Treblinka, they concluded, and the contradictions in timing between the Danilchenko statement and those made by the survivors of Treblinka, which placed Demjanjuk simultaneously in both camps, could be reconciled.

The contortions of their analysis, within an otherwise crystal clear and damning verdict, disturbed a number of experienced observers in Israel at the time.  The Suchomel letter now, corroborating the equally unsolicited 1960s Munzberger statement, makes it totally unacceptable.  We are left unsure where Demjanjuk was.  But there can be no doubt "Ivan" was in Trieste.

There are various possibilities.  Danilchenko's statement may be true, but he knew a different "Ivan Demjanjuk" amazingly similar to the accused.  Or he really did know John Demjanjuk, who was then, however, an "ordinary" guard at Sobibor who cannot have been "Ivan of Treblinka."  (In which case, the never-cross-examined Italian witnesses must have been mistaken.)

Or, worst of all: Danilchenko's statement may have been false deliberately created by the Soviets to support the Americans' suspicions of him, and to make trouble for the Ukrainian community in America exactly as the defense has always claimed.  And if his statement was invented, the authenticity of the Trawniki ID too is compromised.

One way or another, the prosecution team seems to have erred.  The central problem a moral as well as a legal one is that they knew from the start about Danilchenko's statement, just as they knew Ivan had been in Trieste.  It seems at the very least irresponsible not to have somehow enabled the judges to gain full and early knowledge of these most important and totally irreconcilable facts.

The difficulty now is that new evidence normally comes before the appeals court only if either the prosecution or the defense decides to enter it.  One option, however, remains: the appeal judges can insist on seeing missing evidence.

John Demjanjuk's alibi is manifestly a lie, and he is doubtless guilty of some crime he has desperately tried to hide.  He may even be Ivan of Treblinka.  But the verdict is now compromised in a fundamental point, and so are the tactics of the prosecution.

The case, as we see at this 11th hour, is not solved, and the death sentence has become unthinkable.  What is at issue now is not mercy but quite simply justice the rule of law.

Sereny, a British historian, is the author of "Into That Darkness," considered the standard work on Treblinka.  She attended portions of Demjanjuk's trial in Jerusalem.