Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Israeli Court Acquits Demjanjuk, Leaving Many Questions Unanswered

July 30, 1993
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Israeli Supreme Court’s decision to acquit John Demjanjuk of charges that he was the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” of Treblinka is being seen as a strong testament to the integrity of Israel’s judicial system.

But the ruling raises as many questions about Demjanjuk’s wartime past as it settles, and the fact that he is being set free makes it likely they will never be answered.

In ruling Thursday that there was “reasonable doubt” that Demjanjuk was the brutal Nazi SS guard known to Treblinka inmates as “Ivan the Terrible,” the high court judges overturned the death sentence hanging over the 73-year-old former Cleveland autoworker.

The court noted there was clear evidence the Ukrainian native voluntarily trained to be a Nazi guard and other evidence that he may have served as a Nazi guard at another death camp.

But the justices said Demjanjuk had not been given a “reasonable opportunity” to defend himself against those other charges.

“The matter is closed, but not complete. The complete truth is not the prerogative of the human judge,” said court President Meir Shamgar.

Reaction here was mixed. There was praise from those who saw the court as acting honorably and upholding legal principles.

But there was surprise and indignation from others, including Holocaust survivors who testified against Demjanjuk at his trial. They said they were horrified to see the Jewish state set free someone implicated in Nazi war crimes.

Shamgar read aloud a two-hour summary of the 405-page ruling, a unanimous decision by the five justices, to a shocked courtroom, filled with Holocaust survivors, reporters and curious Israelis.

At his request, Demjanjuk was whisked back to jail after the ruling, to stay in protective custody, out of concern that Israelis angry at the decision might want to harm him.


The ruling ends a 16-year legal battle, the last seven years of which Demjanjuk has spent in solitary confinement in a jail outside Tel Aviv.

Demjanjuk was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981, where he had lived since 1958, and was extradited to Israel in 1986. In 1988, after a 14-month trial, a Jerusalem court sentenced him to death for being the sadistic guard named Ivan who operated the gas chambers at the Treblinka camp in Poland, where 870,000 Jews perished.

Demjanjuk’s lawyer, Yoram Sheftel, said Thursday his client expected to leave the country within a matter of days, but would not disclose his destination. There was speculation he would go to the land of his birth, where Ukrainian officials hailed the Israeli court ruling.

In Washington, one Justice Department official said after Thursday’s ruling that Demjanjuk would be barred from returning to America because the United States has determined that he served as a guard at Nazi death camps.

“Demjanjuk got off on a technicality,” said Neal Sher, director of the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting unit, the Office of Special Investigations.

“There is no way that anyone can read in the Israeli Supreme Court decision that he is an innocent man,” Sher said.

He emphasized that Demjanjuk’s order of deportation remains in effect at this time and that U.S. immigration law bars entry to anyone that the United States has “reason to believe engaged in Nazi-sponsored persecution.”

In New York, City Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman held a news conference to call on Attorney General Janet Reno to bar Demjanjuk from re-entering the United States, based on an amendment that Holtzman wrote as a member of Congress.

The Holtzman Amendment states that any alien who “ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person because of race, religion, national origin, or political opinion is excludable.”

The amendment applies to Demjanjuk, even though the Israeli Supreme Court overturned his previous convictions, Holtzman said. “The Israeli court opinion says they found that Demjanjuk participated in the extermination process. You don’t need much more to require his being barred,” she said.

But Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio), who has been one of Demjanjuk’s chief backers, sponsored legislation Thursday calling for Demjanjuk’s return to the United States and the restoration of his American citizenship.

Several American Jewish organizations said Thursday they would oppose any moves to return Demjanjuk to the United States, given the Israeli court’s findings that he was an SS guard.


The Israeli court did, in fact, declare that Demjanjuk had voluntarily trained to be a member of a “wachmann” or non-German watchman guard unit, “established for the sole purpose of learning and teaching its members to destroy, kill and exterminate,” to help the Nazis implement their “final solution of the Jewish problem.”

The finding was based on critical documents that certified Demjanjuk as having been at the Nazi training camp in Trawniki, Poland.

The same documents provided evidence to the court that Demjanjuk had been sent as a “wachmann” to the Sobibor death camp and to the concentration camps of Flossenburg and Regensburg.

The court decided this evidence successfully refuted Demjanjuk’s alibi — that he had been a prisoner of war throughout the war. But the justices decided not to convict him on this evidence since he had been charged with war crimes committed at Treblinka.

Demjanjuk himself, who maintained all along that he had been the victim of mistaken identity, sat, mostly impassively, as Shamgar read the ruling.

But before the verdict was announced, he told reporters at the courthouse: “I miss my wife; I miss my family; I miss my grandchildren; I want to go home.”

His 27-year-old son, John Demjanjuk Jr., said after the ruling was read, “We’re absolutely delighted with the end result.”

But others here clearly were not.

Josef Czarny, one of five Treblinka survivors who testified against Demjanjuk, said in tears: “If I knew this would happen, I would not have taken it upon myself to stand up that day in court and relive Treblinka. I’m there right now.”

“I am saying with pain, this was a trial of injustice. The honorable judges erred,” he said. “I am shocked, shocked, shocked.”

At the conclusion of the proceedings, one old man, covering himself with a large white prayer shawl, began shouting and crying, “Shema, Yisrael,” and held up pictures of family members who had died in the Holocaust.

Other prominent Israelis appeared to take pride in what they saw as the court’s integrity.

Avner Shalev, chairman of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum, said the ruling “indicates both the pain over the Holocaust and the supremacy of justice and law in Israel.”

Former Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohen described the ruling as a “great day for the Supreme Court.”

(Contributing to this report were JTA correspondent Deborah Kalb in Washington and JTA staff intern Tova Mirvis in New York.)

Recommended from JTA