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Demjanjuk Convicted of War Crimes; ‘ivan the Terrible’identity Upheld

April 19, 1988
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

John Demjanjuk was found guilty Monday of war crimes, including the murder of some 800,000 Jews who died in the Treblinka gas chambers.

The verdict was announced just before 8 p.m. local time, 11 hours after the three-judge panel that heard the case finished reading extracts from their ponderous 450-page judgment.

The conclusion was that the 69-year-old retired automobile worker is indeed the Treblinka death camp guard known as “Ivan the Terrible,” who brutalized Jews even as he herded them into the gas chambers that he operated.

Demjanjuk’s Israeli defense attorney, Yoram Sheftel, had conceded defeat hours before the announcement of the verdict. He said that although he continued to believe in his client’s innocence, he had informed the family over the weekend that the defendant would likely be convicted.

The court stressed its “meticulous consideration of all the evidence” and said that while no single identification of the accused by a Treblinka survivor was sufficient to convict him, the cumulative identifications were overwhelming.

The court conceded that memory of events that occurred decades ago can be blurred. But the judges also noted that the experiences the survivors had undergone undoubtedly were seared into their minds for eternity.

Demjanjuk was not able to produce a single witness to support his alibi that he was a prisoner of war of the Germans during the time he allegedly served as a guard at Treblinka. The court upheld the authenticity of an SS identification card issued to Demjanjuk as a voluntary trainee for duty at the death camp.

The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people, murder and a string of other offenses.


Under the 1950 Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Law, he could face the death penalty. Only one person has been executed under the law–Adolf Eichmann, who was hanged here in 1962.

Legal experts say, however, that capital punishment is not mandatory and the court has discretion. Arguments over the sentence will be heard at a later date. Demjanjuk has the right of appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court.

Demjanjuk, who lived in Cleveland, Ohio, before he was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1985, became the first accused war criminal extradited to Israel. His trial began in Jerusalem district court in February 1987 and went through 106 sessions. The prosecution presented 21 witnesses and the defense 31.

The court was headed by Justice Dov Levin, on leave from Israel’s Supreme Court. His colleagues were district court Judges Zvi Tal and Dalia Dormer.

The reading of the judgment occupied most of the day, because it included a detailed recapitulation of the history of the Holocaust, which Levin considered necessary to put the case in its proper context.

The courtroom was packed with many of the witnesses who had testified against Demjanjuk. There was a momentary disturbance when Levin called out the condemnatory sentence. But after calling the court to order, the judge resumed reading the opinion in a flat monotone.

Demjanjuk was not present during the reading. He complained of a back injury. While doctors found nothing wrong, the judge agreed he could remain in his cell near the courtroom.

In New York, Demjanjuk’s conviction was welcomed by Brooklyn District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman, who said the verdict “sends the world a signal that Nazi war criminals cannot escape.”

“Justice has finally caught up with John Demjanjuk,” she said in a statement released to the news media.

Holtzman is the author of federal legislation enabling the United States to deport convicted Nazi war criminals. The legislation, which she introduced as a member of Congress, also bans those linked to Nazi atrocities from entering the United States. Demjanjuk was the first suspected war criminal extradited to Israel under the law.

Holtzman has criticized the U.S. government in recent years for not moving more quickly to prosecute hundreds of suspected Nazi war criminals living in the United States. She sounded a similar theme in her statement Monday.

“The U.S. must not only continue to aggressively pursue and expel the hundreds of Nazi war criminals living here, it must also make it easier to do so. Time is running out,” she said.

“We cannot stop our efforts until every Nazi war criminal is expelled from the United States and brought to justice,” the district attorney added.

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