Demjanjuk is Sticking to His Alibi
Menu JTA Search

Demjanjuk is Sticking to His Alibi

Download PDF for this date

John Demjanjuk, into his second week of testimony in his own defense, is plainly not going to be broken by the prosecution in one sudden collapse of his alibi. Rather, as the long court sessions proceed, it seems clear that State Attorney Yona Blattman and his able assistant, Michael Shaked, hope to chip away at the accused man’s story, bit by painstaking bit, and in this way cause it to crumble eventually in the eyes of the three-judge Jerusalem court.

The court for its part is watching attentively to see whether the prosecution’s cumulative assault will undermine the defendant, or whether, after his gruelling weeks in the witness box, Demjanjuk can emerge with his story, though bruised and buffeted, still sufficiently intact to avoid a conviction.

On Tuesday, Judge Dov Levin gravely and repeatedly warned Demjanjuk that he was undertaking a “grave responsibility” by not giving direct answers to the prosecutor.

The questions, though seemingly technical, were key to his wartime alibi. They focused on his admittedly false entries on his U.S. immigration application, submitted at a displaced persons camp after World War II. The defendant had written that he spent the war years as a farmer in Poland in the village of Sobibor.

Questioned about the actual process of filling out that form, Demjanjuk seemed to be avoiding answering, incurring Levin’s wrath. “We will take that into account” Levin thundered.


Demjanjuk says he lied to Americans in order to avoid being repatriated to the USSR. The prosecution says he lied in order to conceal his true identity — Ivan the Terrible, butcher of Treblinka.

His claim to have lived outside Russia prior to and during the war, Demjanjuk says, left the Americans no reason to suspect him of membership in the Red Army, even though he was of conscription age at the start of the war.

In fact, he says, he did serve in the Red Army. He claims to have feared repatriation because of his alleged membership in the turncoat Vlasov army, a Russian POW division that fought on the German side. In Russia he would have been considered a traitor and would have been executed.

Demjanjuk’s lie may have been understandable in the circumstances, Shaked conceded, but why did he choose the town Sobibor as his false residence in Poland? Why not choose a place he claims to have been familiar with, such as Rowno, the POW camp in Poland where he spent two weeks, or Chelm, where he claims to have been imprisoned 18 months?

The prosecution places Demjanjuk at the Treblinka death camp during that 18 month period, where he is accused of driving hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths in the gas chamber.

Demjanjuk claims his choice of Sobibor was arbitrary. Aided by a helpful friend at the DP camp, he says he picked any Polish town that came to mind. But he insisted — repeatedly during this week’s proceedings — that he had never actually been in Sobibor (nor in Treblinka).

But Sobibor was an unfortunate choice if it really was arbitrary as the defendant claims, for the town of Sobibor hosted another notorious concentration camp. And Sobibor is also mentioned on the defendant’s alleged SS identity card, as the camp he was sent to on completion of his SS guard training at Trawniki.

Demjanjuk maintains that the card, a central piece of evidence in the case, is a KGB forgery as the Soviet Union’s revenge against him.

But perhaps, Shaked pressed on, Demjanjuk chose the town of Sobibor because he was indeed familiar with it — it being fairly close to Treblinka — and because he preferred for obvious reasons not to cite Treblinka itself.

Demjanjuk replied that the friend had suggested Sobibor because it had a substantial Ukrainian population.

Contradicting his previous testimony, he does not now claim that Sobibor was a misspelling on his U.S. immigration form, and that the town in fact chosen was Sambor. He now says that only years later in the U.S, possibly after proceedings against him had begun, he tried to find Sobibor on a map. When he was unable to find it he presumed that the choice must have been Sambor.


To press his point home further, Shaked referred to the case of Feodor Fedorenko, a convicted Treblinka guard recently executed in the USSR, whose history allegedly followed similar lines to Demjanjuk’s. Fedorenko, also a Ukrainian, had, like the defendant, been imprisoned at Rowno and then at Chelm. But he admitted being recruited there by the SS.

Fedorenko was posted to Treblinka and later to another camp at Pelitz. He had used the town of Pelitz as his false residence on his U.S immigration application. Obviously he had thought it wiser to name Pelitz rather than Treblinka.

At this reference to Fedorenko, Demjanjuk repeated the phrase that has cropped up again and again during his cross-examination: “I was never at Treblinka nor at Sobibor.”


The defense team, meanwhile, is soon to be strengthened by a Canadian attorney, a Queen’s counsel from Toronto, who speaks Ukrainian.

Paul Chumak, 42 years old, who has served as a public prosecutor for the province of Ontario, is already attending the daily sessions, listening to the translation from a place in the public section. But he is expected to be granted soon the necessary license to practice temporarily in Israel — and will join Yoram Sheftel and John Gill as Demjanjuk’s defense team.

Demjanjuk’s son, John Jr., told reporters this week that the family had paid some $600,000 over the past five years to attorney Mark O’Connor, of Buffalo, N.Y., whom the defendant dismissed as his lead attorney earlier this month.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund