Commentary Magazine

Demjanjuk: A Summing-Up

On July 29, 1993, the Supreme Court of Israel, reversing a lower court’s verdict, acquitted John Demjanjuk of having participated, as “Ivan the Terrible,” in the gassing operations at the Nazi death camp of Treblinka. This brought to a climax, but not to an end, a legal saga currently in its 21st year. Demjanjuk, now aged seventy-six, a naturalized American citizen of Ukrainian origin, has resettled quietly in Cleveland while U.S. courts continue to consider whether to enforce the orders of deportation and denaturalization that stand against him even after his acquittal and the vacating of his extradition to Israel.

When the reversal was announced, the conservative magazine National Review editorialized that Demjanjuk had, in fact, been “falsely accused” from the beginning—and that Patrick J. Buchanan, who had championed Demjanjuk’s cause, “deserves double credit for . . . his attempt to ensure that justice was done.” A few months later, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that prosecutors in the U.S. Justice Department had committed “fraud on the court” by failing to share some potentially exculpatory material with Demjanjuk’s defense. At the same time, Demjanjuk’s Israeli attorney, Yoram Sheftel, published his own account of the case, claiming that Demjanjuk had been the “innocent victim of a show trial.” Translations of Sheftel’s book were soon published in France and England and later in America, where its publisher billed it as “the true story of the infamous show-trial” and as proving “beyond a doubt that John Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible, was innocent of all charges, and never participated in any way in the horror of the Holocaust.”1

Let us see.



One of the curiosities of the Demjanjuk case is that it arose from an exercise in Soviet propaganda. It began in 1975, when Soviet authorities, smarting from the worldwide campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry, furnished a Ukrainian-American Soviet sympathizer with a list of Ukrainian immigrants in the United States who were alleged to have collaborated with the Nazis.

This list, which included the name of Ivan (John) Demjanjuk, was passed along to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Though aware that the Soviet government often manufactured lies, and withheld or doled out information to suit its own purposes, the INS did not simply dismiss all evidence originating within the USSR out of hand, especially when it came to Nazi-related crimes. After all, the murder of European Jewry had been carried out almost entirely in Eastern Europe, and the death camps and whatever evidence they contained had been captured at war’s end by the Red Army.

Confronted with allegations from Soviet sources, then, the U.S. government took it upon itself to assess the proffered evidence. (As it happens, there seem to be no known instances in which evidence relating to Holocaust crimes was simply manufactured by the Soviets.) Eventually, American authorities initiated action against Demjanjuk and a handful of others on the list, some of whom confessed to the charges against them.

In the course of its investigation, the INS sent nine names to the Israeli police, asking for witnesses—Holocaust survivors—who might be able to identify any of them. The names were accompanied by photographs taken from immigration files, as well as photos of other Ukrainians to serve as “filler.” The INS also conveyed the Soviet charges against the nine. Seven of them were accused of crimes committed within Ukraine, for which it would have been hard to find surviving eyewitnesses in Israel. The other two names were those of Feodor Fedorenko, accused of having been a guard at Treblinka, and Ivan Demjanjuk, accused of having been a guard at Sobibor.

The Israeli investigator began by calling in known survivors of Treblinka to see if any could identify Fedorenko. Surprisingly, however, when they were shown the photographs, several Treblinka survivors focused less on Fedorenko than on Demjanjuk. Pointing to his photograph, they said he was the one they had called “Ivan Grozny” (“Ivan the Terrible”).

This was the nickname given to a Ukrainian guard at Treblinka whose job was to operate the diesel engines feeding exhaust fumes into the gas chambers; within little more than a year, some 800,000 men, women, children, and infants had been murdered in this manner. But Ivan did not get his moniker, “the Terrible,” merely for causing so many deaths. In that cauldron of brutality, he had managed to distinguish himself for the sadistic pleasure he took in torturing hapless victims on their way to the chambers and for the perverse indignities he visited upon the Jews who were kept alive to carry the corpses and perform other menial chores in the camp.

The first few times the photo of Demjanjuk was picked out, the Israeli investigator informed the survivor making the identification that he must be mistaken: the man in the photo had been named as a guard at Sobibor. But the survivors insisted he had been at Treblinka. Eventually the investigator ceased demurring; in the end, some eighteen separate survivors—as well as one German, a male nurse in the SS who had worked at Treblinka—identified one or another old photograph of Demjanjuk as being that of Ivan of Treblinka. As for the Sobibor survivors, who were fewer in number, none of them recognized Demjanjuk’s photo.

And yet the Soviet sources had offered nothing to connect Demjanjuk with Treblinka. According to a propagandistic article from the mid-70’s in the Soviet Ukrainian press, there were two pieces of evidence against him. One was an identity card that had been issued at the Nazi training camp of Trawniki with an identification number—1393—and entries showing that Demjanjuk had been posted to Sobibor. The other was the testimony of a fellow guard, Ignats Danilchenko, who had stated in “a previous investigation” that he worked with Demjanjuk at Sobibor and later at concentration camps in Flossenburg and Regensburg, Germany. In response to requests from the U.S. Justice Department, which by then had set up an Office of Special Investigation (OSI), the Soviet government produced a photocopy of the identity card and, some time later, the original. It did not produce Danilchenko himself, but in 1979 forwarded his sworn statement reiterating his account of Demjanjuk’s activities.



Officials in the United States and Israel who were investigating the case thus confronted two sets of evidence. A great many eyewitnesses placed Demjanjuk at Treblinka, while a document, buttressed by an affidavit of uncertain utility, placed him at Sobibor and Trawniki. The two sets of evidence did not make a neat fit; but neither were they irreconcilable.

Treblinka, Sobibor, and Trawniki were in fact related to one another. Each had played a major part in Operation Reinhard, the Nazi plan for exterminating the Jews of Poland. Under this plan, three camps were built: at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. These were not concentration or labor camps; their only function was annihilation. The Jews who were delivered to them were stripped of their clothing, their belongings, and (in the case of the women) their hair, and marched straight into the gas chambers. Over the eighteen months in which they operated, 600,000 people were murdered at Belzec and 250,000 at Sobibor, in addition to the 800,000 killed at Treblinka. Those who survived were among the tiny fraction mustered out to serve as slaves in the operation of the killing facility.

In addition to these slaves, and the German SS men who were in charge, the manpower essential to the functioning of the death camps included a third group, the Wachmänner, or guards, who did most of the actual killing. It was they who rounded up the Jews in the various ghettos, guarded them in transport to the camps, drove them with whips and clubs to the gas chambers, turned on the gas, shot the ones unable to walk, and supervised the slaves who carried the bodies to pits for burial and burning.

The Wachmänner—ethnic Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, Lithuanians, and others—were recruited from among captured Soviet soldiers in German POW camps. They were sent first to Trawniki, a base camp and training center. In addition to staffing the Operation Reinhard death camps, Trawniki-trained Wachmänner were also assigned to various other concentration and labor camps.

One part of the Soviet evidence—the Trawniki identity card—could thus be seen to fit well with the eyewitness evidence. Whatever his name in real life, Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka was surely a Trawniki-trained Wachmann. What did not fit so well was the entry on the card showing a posting of Ivan Demjanjuk to Sobibor, not Treblinka—an entry corroborated, for what that was worth, by the Danilchenko affidavit. But enabling prosecutors in the United States and later in Israel to reconcile the two sets of evidence was that Demjanjuk’s posting to Sobibor was dated March 27, 1943.

Since the vast bulk of the killing at Treblinka was accomplished between July 1942 and January 1943, Demjanjuk could have earned his notoriety as Ivan the Terrible there and then been transferred to Sobibor in March. The two camps were only 100 miles apart, and Wachmänner were often transferred. True, some of the witnesses recalled having seen Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka in August 1943, at or about the time of a rebellion by the Jewish inmates; but a last round of gassings was also being carried out at that moment, and Demjanjuk could have been transferred back to finish up the work.

As for why Demjanjuk’s identity card failed to list a posting to Treblinka, that might have been due to a simple omission. Danilchenko, after all, had also described other postings, to Flossenburg and Regensburg, neither of which had been entered on the card. Similarly, examination of other identity cards in the course of Demjanjuk’s trial in Israel revealed numerous omissions of postings.



In addition to the Trawniki card and the accounts of various witnesses, Demjanjuk’s own statements figured prominently in the proceedings against him in the United States. Much was at stake for him—a possible loss of his American citizenship, deportation, and extradition to Israel—and almost everything turned on his veracity. Had he lied to the United States government when he first applied for immigration in 1951 from a displaced-persons camp in Germany? If so, had he lied in order to hide the fact that he was ineligible to come to this country? And if, as he now asserted, he had never been at Treblinka, Sobibor, or Trawniki, and had never been a Wachmann, where had he spent the war?

In the event, Demjanjuk acknowledged that he had lied on his immigration application by claiming to have been a resident of Poland from 1934 until 1943 and then to have been deported to Germany and to have spent the rest of the war there. He claimed, however, that so far as the U.S. was concerned, this lie was both innocent and defensible, having been designed to obscure his wartime service in the Red Army, his capture by German forces, and his subsequent enlistment in the anti-Soviet army organized by General Vlasov. In other words, he was trying to avoid being delivered over, like so many other ex-Soviet soldiers, to the tender mercies of Joseph Stalin.

Not so, replied the prosecutors. For when Demjanjuk filled out his immigration application it was at the very height of the cold war, five full years after the U.S. had ceased repatriations. He lied, they said, not to avoid repatriation, of which there was then no danger, but because his true wartime record—as a Wachmann—would have rendered him ineligible for immigration.

In listing where he lived in Poland from 1934 through 1943, Demjanjuk had written “Sobibor.” Why? In his testimony in U.S. proceedings, Demjanjuk now claimed that while filling out the form, he had asked someone standing nearby for the name of a Polish city and the person read “Sobibor” from a map. In his later testimony in Israel, he said he himself read the name at random from a map. But neither version rang true. Sobibor is little more than a railway junction, altogether absent from many maps and almost invisible where it does appear. After examining the evidence, the Israeli court concluded that “only someone who was at Sobibor could have known this place.”

By far the most important question of veracity centered on Demjanjuk’s alibi for the period he was alleged to have been a Wachmann. There is no dispute about his whereabouts through May 1942, when, a soldier in the Red Army, he was captured by the Germans in the battle of Kerch in the Crimea and interned as a POW at Rovno. But according to Demjanjuk he was then transferred to a POW camp at Chelm where he remained for a large part of the war, eventually being moved to Graz where he enrolled in an anti-Communist Ukrainian division commanded by General Pavlo Shandruk and then to Heuberg where he joined the Russian Liberation Army of General Vlasov.

Neither American nor Israeli courts found this version believable. Chelm was a transit camp at which POW’s were supposed to remain only for days or weeks, not the eighteen months to two-and-a-half years Demjanjuk claimed. More importantly, his story did not square with historical facts. Before the court in the United States, he testified that he had been at Chelm until the fall of 1944; but the Red Army drove the Germans from Chelm in June 1944 and the POW camp there had been evacuated by April. In Israel, Demjanjuk altered his story, saying he had left Chelm for Graz, where he joined the Ukrainian division in the spring of 1943; but this version raised still another problem, since the Ukrainian unit was not formed until February 1945.

In addition, there was Danilchenko’s affidavit, which stated that at Flossenburg, he and Demjanjuk had received tattoos indicating their blood type on the inner part of the upper left arm. These tattoos were routinely given to members of the SS and Waffen SS to signify their elite status and to facilitate care if they became wounded. If detected, such a tattoo would have impeded Demjanjuk’s immigration to the U.S. Unable to conceal a scar in the indicated place, he acknowledged having had a tattoo, but denied that he got it during service to the SS. Instead, he claimed, it came with enrollment in the Ukrainian division at Graz. He said he gouged it out after joining the Vlasov army a few months later upon noticing that the other men were without this marking—a remarkably thin motive for inflicting so great a self-injury.



None of the courts that have heard Demjanjuk’s case, in America or in Israel, has found him credible on his wartime experience. As Judge Thomas Wiseman, Jr., the Special Master appointed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, stated in his report: “Mr. Demjanjuk’s alibi was so incredible as to legitimately raise the suspicions of his prosecutors that he lied about everything.”

In contrast, the Treblinka survivors made strong witnesses, who were believed by each court that heard them. And the Trawniki identity card, though attacked as a KGB forgery by Demjanjuk’s defenders, was believed as well. In separate proceedings, American and Israeli government forensic specialists examined this document, performed physical analyses of the paper and ink, and found it authentic.

The combination of survivor testimony, the Trawniki card, and Demjanjuk’s own improbable version of events is what caused the U.S. district court to revoke his citizenship in 1981 and led to the order to deport and extradite him to Israel, where, after a trial that lasted over a year and was an international sensation, he was convicted in 1988 as Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka. The appeals process took another five years, mostly because of requests for delays from Demjanjuk’s side, before he was acquitted by the Israel Supreme Court.

What caused the reversal? Unlike its American counterpart, the Israel Supreme Court considers new evidence on appeal, and as the Iron Curtain crumbled, Demjanjuk’s defenders searched in heretofore inaccessible places for exculpatory material. Meanwhile, the Israeli prosecution was searching, too, and some documents it uncovered led, paradoxically, to Demjanjuk’s acquittal.

Specifically, in a Ukrainian state archive a set of confessions was found from a postwar interrogation of Ukrainian Wachmänner who had served at Treblinka and were then captured or arrested by Soviet forces. Many described a colleague named Ivan Marchenko as one of two operators of the Treblinka gas engines; some identified him from the photo on his Trawniki card.

These documents raised the possibility that Demjanjuk had been wrongly identified as Ivan the Terrible. But they existed in a vacuum. Both the interrogators and their interviewees were long since dead, and no one could authenticate die records or vouch for how they had been handled over the intervening decades, let alone verify the circumstances under which the confessions had been elicited. To confuse matters still further, Demjanjuk himself had given Marchenko as his mother’s maiden name, both on a 1948 sworn statement substituting for a birth certificate and on his 1951 immigration application. His attorneys now produced evidence showing that this, too, had been a deliberate falsification on his part; but if so, it only strengthened the point that Marchenko was a name Demjanjuk sometimes used.

The Israel Supreme Court nevertheless decided that these documents, although not admissible before most courts, could not be ignored, and that the doubts they raised were sufficient to overturn the conviction of Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible.

Could his conviction be allowed to stand, then, solely on the fact that he had been a Wachmann at Sobibor? The Supreme Court said no, because this issue had been scanted in the trial. It also refused to allow the Sobibor charges to be brought de novo, on the grounds that Demjanjuk had already been imprisoned in Israel for seven years and it would be unreasonable to start new proceedings against him. But there was a deep irony here—or, rather, a set of ironies. For, as the court noted, the same document search that saved Demjanjuk on the Treblinka counts strengthened the case that he had served at Sobibor.

A list of Trawniki men detailed to Sobibor was found in Russian archives at Saratov. Dated March 26, 1943, the day before the Sobibor entry on Demjanjuk’s own card, it included his name, place and date of birth, and identification number. A transfer order found in another Russian archive, this one dated October 1, 1943, listed Trawniki men posted to Flossenburg and again included Demjanjuk as well as Danilchenko, giving their identification numbers and dates and places of birth. And a memo found in a state archive in Vilnius, Lithuania, ordering punishment of four Trawniki Wachmänner for going AWOL one evening, once again included Demjanjuk’s name and number.

Ukrainian archives also yielded a transcript of a confession similar to the ones that had cast doubt on Demjanjuk’s presence at Treblinka. This one was also by Danilchenko, but it was dated 1949, 30 years before the similar affidavit produced by the Soviets. In 1949, Danilchenko was apparently asked by his interrogators to name and describe his fellow Wachmänner. He listed ten, of whom Demjanjuk was one. At Sobibor, he said, “I saw Demjanjuk, armed with a rifle, . . . guarding prisoners in all areas of the camp, from the unloading platform to the entrance into the gas chamber.” And he added: “Demjanjuk was considered to be an experienced and efficient guard. For example, he was repeatedly assigned by the Germans to get Jews in surrounding ghettos and deliver them in trucks to the camp to be killed.”

True, each of these documents came from some part of the former Soviet Union, but Demjanjuk’s defense could not reasonably continue to claim that the evidence against him had been forged by the KGB. For the KGB would have had to have forged each of the various documents and left them moldering in archives dispersed among the Soviet republics throughout more than a decade of Demjanjuk’s legal proceedings, only to have them discovered (along with exculpatory documents) when the Soviet state disappeared.

The final nail in the coffin of the Demjanjuk conspiracy theory was provided by two separate documents discovered in West German archives in Koblenz. Both of them listed Demjanjuk as having been in the Flossenburg concentration camp in 1944, and one included his identification number as well as Danilchenko’s name and number, along with those of another Wachmann named in Danilchenko’s 1949 confession. Thus was Danilchenko’s account confirmed from sources outside as well as inside the former Soviet Union.



In short, the evidence that Demjanjuk served as a Wachmann at Trawniki, Sobibor, and Flossenburg was and remains quite persuasive. In addition to the identity card, at least one other document puts him at Sobibor and at least four put him at Trawniki, while at least three put him at Flossenburg after Sobibor. All these documents are mutually consistent and all bear Demjanjuk’s telltale identification number. On every verifiable point, Danilchenko’s testimony—which once seemed the weakest link in the evidentiary chain—has proved accurate, just as Demjanjuk’s own testimony has again and again proved inaccurate.

And that is another irony of this case. While the evidence of the survivors, furnished from the purest of motives, stands in question, the Soviet evidence, furnished undoubtedly for reasons of propaganda, has stood up well. Indeed, the case most closely linked to Demjanjuk’s, that of Feodor Federenko, had its own tortuous unfolding in American courts, with Federenko eventually confessing to having been a Wachmann at Treblinka—just as the Soviets said he was. Following that confession, Federenko was extradited to the USSR, where he was executed. Had Demjanjuk not been accused of being Ivan the Terrible, he would probably have undergone a similar fate. For while it is unlikely that Israel, which had not tried a Nazi war criminal since Adolf Eichmann, would have asked for his extradition on the basis of his presence at Sobibor alone, the Soviet Union would almost certainly have done so.

Is John Demjanjuk Ivan the Terrible? We may never know. If he is not, then justice of a sort has been done through his acquittal by the Israel Supreme Court. But that acquittal hardly makes him “an innocent victim,” as his defenders would have it, much less a martyr. Far from it. That he served the SS and assisted in unspeakable crimes against humanity—of that, there can be no doubt.




1 Defending “Ivan the Terrible”: The Conspiracy to Convict John Demjanjuk. Regnery, 379 pp., $27.50.


About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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