Behind the Headlines: Case of ‘ivan the Terrible’ Long Riddled with Ambiguities
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Behind the Headlines: Case of ‘ivan the Terrible’ Long Riddled with Ambiguities

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The decision handed down Thursday by Israel’s Supreme Court in the case of John Demjanjuk culminates more than a decade of controversy in one of the most hotly contested war crimes cases in history.

Demjanjuk, a 73-year-old retired Cleveland autoworker, was extradited to Israel in 1986 and convicted there of crimes committed as “Ivan the Terrible,” the sadistic guard at the Treblinka death camp who delighted in torturing Jews as he herded them into the gas chambers. In 1988 he was sentenced to death.

Between 800,000 and 900,000 Jews died at Treblinka.

Throughout Demjanjuk’s long ordeal, through deportation proceedings in the United States, a protracted trial in Israel and numerous appeals in both countries, the Ukrainian native has steadfastly maintained that his is a case of mistaken identity, and that he never served at any concentration camp.

The long-awaited decision by Israel’s high court comes after a lengthy review of its 1988 verdict and death sentence for crimes of mass murder committed both at Treblinka and at the Sobibor concentration camp.

Most of the Holocaust survivors who testified that Demjanjuk was the notorious Ivan were elderly, and the defense team charged they could not identify a guard 40 years after their ordeal.

Highly troubling has been a key piece of evidence against Demjanjuk, an identification card issued at a training camp for SS guards in Trawniki, Poland.

The card, which lists Demjanjuk’s assignment, makes no mention of Treblinka but instead names Sobibor, another Nazi death camp.

Defenders of Demjanjuk have pointed out physical differences between the man described on the identification card of Ivan Demjanjuk, as he was known in Ukraine, and those described in testimony by former SS guards who served at Treblinka and Sobibor.


Since his April 1988 conviction by the Israeli court, Demjanjuk’s defense team has provided what it called “new evidence,” chiefly testimony available since the demise of the Soviet Union, which points to a man named Ivan Marchenko as the so-called “Ivan the Terrible.”

On his U.S. visa application, Demjanjuk listed his mother’s maiden name as Marczenko, although he later said this was not so.

The case against Demjanjuk was ignited by accident, when a number of Holocaust survivors, peering over a photo spread in the case to deport Treblinka guard Feodor Fedorenko, pointed out the picture of Demjanjuk and fingered him as the infamous “Ivan.”

Both Demjanjuk and Fedorenko had been identified as former SS guards in the Ukrainian Daily News, which is published in New York.

In November 1975, Demjanjuk’s name was submitted to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service as an alleged Nazi collaborator at Sobibor. Survivors subsequently identified him as “Ivan the Terrible” of Treblinka.

In August 1977, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began an investigation to revoke Demjanjuk’s citizenship. It was based on the war crimes charges and the fact that he had lied about his wartime past when he applied for a U.S. visa in 1951, when he immigrated to the United States in 1952 and when he became a U.S. citizen in 1958.

Demjanjuk’s statements, given at different times, were studded with inconsistencies. Confronted with this, he said he had lied to avoid being repatriated to the Soviet Union.

His first trial opened in federal court in Cleveland in February 1981. That June, Demjanjuk’s citizenship was revoked and he was found deportable. There ensued a series of appeals, including to the Supreme Court, which twice declined to hear the case.


In November 1983, Israel requested his extradition.

In May 1984, a U.S. immigration court judge ordered Demjanjuk’s expulsion and in February 1985, the Board of Immigration Appeal ruled he must be deported.

On Oct. 31, 1985, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ordered Demjanjuk to be extradited to Israel to stand trial for murder. He was extradited in February 1986.

Demjanjuk’s trial opened in Jerusalem in November 1986.

It was seen as possibly the last time the public would be able to confront the Holocaust in any tangible way.

The trial turned out thousands of Israelis, including schoolchildren, who stood on line for hours to get into the courtroom, a specially constructed section of the Binyanei Ha’uma convention center in Jerusalem.

Demjanjuk was initially defended by Mark O’Connor, an American lawyer. As he appeared to be losing the case, Demjanjuk’s family dismissed O’Connor, and the defense team’s Israeli member, Yoram Sheftel, became Demjanjuk’s attorney.

Sheftel became the target of hatred by Holocaust survivors in Israel, one of whom threw acid in Sheftel’s eyes, damaging vision in one eye.

On April 18, 1988, the three-judge Israeli court found Demjanjuk guilty of being “Ivan the Terrible,” as well as having been a guard at the Sobibor, Flossenburg and Majdanek camps.

A week later, it sentenced him to death by hanging.

His defense then appealed the case to Israel’s Supreme Court, presenting what it said was evidence newly available from the former Soviet Union showing that the real “Ivan the Terrible” was named Ivan Marchenko.

Based in part on that evidence and on charges that Justice Department lawyers may have withheld exculpatory evidence, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reopened the extradition case last year.

The court appointed a special master, U.S. District Judge Thomas Wiseman Jr. of Nashville, who issued a report last month in which he expressed “substantial doubt” that Demjanjuk was indeed the man known as “Ivan the Terrible.”

He said the extradition was valid, however, because there was persuasive evidence that Demjanjuk was trained as an SS guard and had lied to U.S. officials.

Wiseman recommended that the appeals court close the case and take no action against the government prosecutors. The Cincinnati court’s ruling is expected in early September.

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