George Jonas

The man who wasn't John Demjanjuk

by George Jonas
National Post

A news item on my computer screen reports that John Demjanjuk, a convicted war criminal, passed away at age of 91 in a German nursing home, still protesting his innocence. I look at a letter in my archives I wrote to my literary agent, the late Stanley Colbert, 25 years ago.

In the fall of 1987, John Demjanjuk was a retired auto worker from Cleveland, on trial for his life. A man of Ukrainian birth who settled in America after the war, Demjanjuk had been stripped of his American citizenship and extradited to Israel in 1986 to face charges of having been "Ivan the Terrible," a guard of legendary brutality at the infamous Nazi death camp of Treblinka.

As I wrote to Colbert, who was being queried by a publisher, some of the collaborators Hitler used to murder millions in Nazi-occupied Europe did escape after the war, so there was no reason why Ivan the Terrible couldn't be a retired autoworker in Cleveland named John Demjanjuk.

I just didn't think he was. My doubts weren't due to reservations about prosecuting war crimes. I had none, as long as they were prosecuted fairly, under the same rules as all others. I didn't think the passage of time diminished the need for bringing criminals to justice, but neither did I think the enormity of a crime justified railroading suspects, relaxing evidentiary rules, or reducing procedural protections.

In the Demjanjuk case, the initial charges were of dubious provenance -- they were, in essence, KGB tips -- which should have made the prosecutors more suspicious than they seemed to be. But prosecutors are often arrogant and cocksure of their hand, and this wasn't why I thought Nazi hunters were barking up the wrong tree.

When I interviewed Demjanjuk's son-in-law (as he then was), Ed Nishnic described the retired autoworker as a likeable, ordinary, hard-working family man. This would have been in complete contrast with the gruesome monster of Treblinka, who appeared ghoulish even by the standards of a Nazi death camp. But human beings can undergo astounding changes in response to their environment -- at least, up to a point.

"Is your father-in-law a hard drinker?" I asked Nishnic.

"Not at all," he replied.

"A teetotaler?"

Nishnic laughed. "Hell, no," he said. "John drinks -- well, you know, like everybody else. A few beers, watching the game, Saturday or Sunday."

"Ivan the Terrible" didn't drink like everybody else. He drank like a fish. Treblinka's monster was an alcoholic. All witnesses describe him as a hopeless, round-the-clock, falling-down drunk. He was a functioning alcoholic, given that his function was to beat, torture, taunt, and kill prisoners in a Nazi camp, but he never drew a sober breath.

Alcoholics like Ivan don't become social drinkers. Most stay alcoholics -- but the few who cure themselves become teetotalers. Never touching the stuff is possible. Social drinking isn't.

To me, the beers he quaffed after a ballgame indicated far more convincingly that John Demjanjuk wasn't "Ivan the Terrible" than any other piece of evidence. But it was eyewitness identifications over a distance of 40 years, or documents whose authenticity could never be determined beyond a reasonable doubt, that occupied a special tribunal in Jerusalem between the fall of 1986 and the spring of 1988, after which a panel of three judges found the Cleveland autoworker guilty of all charges and sentenced him to death by hanging.

Had he been Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka, he would have richly deserved it, but I didn't think he was, and in the end neither did the Israeli Supreme Court. In 1993, a five-member panel allowed Demjanjuk's appeal. The main reason was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which made more evidence available about the real Ivan's identity. It appeared he was one Ivan Marchenko, a Soviet soldier of Ukrainian extraction who'd been captured by the Germans. The old Soviets, of course, would have sat on this, watching with glee as Demjanjuk swung.

Israel could have prosecuted Demjanjuk for being an ordinary guard in some other Nazi camp, as he may have been, but the attorney-general had no interest in small fry and released him in 1993. In the same year, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, essentially, that the Soviets were not alone in sitting on exculpatory evidence. By failing to disclose evidence that would have indicated that their trophy fish (Demjanjuk) wasn't Moby Dick but a minnow, the intrepid Nazi hunters of the Office of Special investigations along with U.S. federal prosecutors committed fraud on the court. Then, in 1998, a federal court ruled that Demjanjuk's U.S. citizenship could be restored.

From there, though, things went downhill for Demjanjuk again. In 1999, the U.S. Justice Department filed a new complaint against him, this time for having been, not Ivan the Terrible, as they had urged for the previous 20 years, but plain John Demjanjuk, a guard at the infamous death camps of Sobibor and Majdanek in German-occupied Poland.

Could it have been true? Yes. When captured by the Germans, many Red Army soldiers "volunteered" to serve the invaders in various capacities to increase the chances of their own survival. Not very heroic, but let those who know for sure they wouldn't have done it cast the first stone.

Germany, being such a moral bastion, stepped up to the plate. It offered to prosecute people whose country it invaded in 1941 for accepting Germany's offer they couldn't refuse. And so it happened that in 2009, Demjanjuk, 88, stripped of his American citizenship again, was extradited to Germany, to be tried and eventually convicted of not saying no to Germany, which now appears to be a crime in that country. They know best why.

As Juvenal pointed out nearly 2,000 years ago, it's difficult not to write satire.