Behind the Headlines Shift in Focus of Demjanjuk Trial
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Behind the Headlines Shift in Focus of Demjanjuk Trial

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The focus of the Treblinka war crimes trial will shift this week from “Ivan the Terrible,” the bestial young butcher of Treblinka, whose exploits were recounted through months of gruesome evidence, to John Demjanjuk, the 68-year-old Cleveland grandfather, who is to take the witness stand in his own defense.

The scenes depicted will shift, too, from the Treblinka death camp to the barracks and battlefields of Gen. Andrei Vlasov’s regiment of turncoat Russian soldiers, in whose ranks Demjanjuk claims he fought in the last years of World War II.

Ever since the U.S. immigration authorities first moved, in the 1970’s, to strip the Cleveland auto mechanic of his citizenship, Demjanjuk has doggedly claimed he is the victim of mistaken identity, through a plot heinously hatched by the Soviet KGB in order to strike fear into the hearts of all those Ukrainian soldiers who switched sides after their capture by the Germans during the war, and subsequently managed to escape to the West.

Monday his version will finally undergo judicial scrutiny, as the Jerusalem district court opens the defense case in this five-month-old trial.


Apart from the massive weight of meticulous evidence amassed and submitted by the state prosecutor and his assistants during the long months of daily hearings, Demjanjuk must overcome, too, the near-collapse of his own defense team.

Earlier this month he informed the court definitively that he had decided to fire his longtime attorney, Mark O’Connor of Buffalo N.Y., for “incompetence.”

Judge Dov Levin was plainly reluctant to accede to the defendant’s insistent demand that O’Connor step down. He warned repeatedly that the defense would receive no further delays or recesses in which to prepare its witnesses.

But Demjanjuk was adamant. He had consulted, he explained, with his whole family, and they decided together that O’Connor was handling the case badly. They were looking for a top American trial lawyer. Their first choice, John Broadley of Washington D.C., had declined. Meanwhile their Israeli lawyer, Yoram Sheftel, would lead, supported by American attorney John Gill.


Sheftel, a relatively unknown Tel Aviv attorney, has been at daggers drawn with O’Connor almost from the moment when O’Connor hired him as his assistant. The court has on occasion criticized Sheftel for superficiality. O’Connor accused Sheftel of turning the family against him, after he has devoted six years of his professional life to defending Demjanjuk in the passionate conviction that he is innocent.

O’Connor, theatrical in style but always courteous, has won the grudging respect of the bench and of the public, following this traumatic trial on television and radio.

It remains to be seen now how the average Israeli will stomach the additional trauma of hearing the alleged Nazi deathcamp guard defended in Hebrew by a fellow-Israeli.


In his letter of resignation to Judge Levin, O’Connor wrote that he planned to adduce “powerful evidence” to the effect that the key Trawniki document is a forgery. This document, supplied to Israel by the Soviet authorities through the good offices of American oil billionaire Armand Hammer, purports to be Demjanjuk’s SS identification card, issued to him at the SS training camp at Trawniki, where he trained for his gory duties at Trawniki, where he trained for his gory duties at Treblinka.

O’Connor also wrote that he intended to put on the witness stand a man named Walter Dubowitz who would attest that he served as Demjanjuk’s superior officer in the renegade army of Gen. Vlasov. He would also adduce evidence from two Soviet peasants who drank with “Ivan” and would testify that Demjanjuk is not “Ivan.”

O’Connor implied that all this preparatory work would not now properly be used and presented by Sheftel and Gill. But that of course remains to be seen.

There has even been speculation here that without O’Connor, who is fiercely anti-Soviet, the defence might change its tack altogether, possibly even changing the defendant’s plea or seeking a plea-bargain with the prosecution.

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