Israel Opens Demjanjuk War Crimes Trial

Times Staff Writer

Retired Cleveland auto worker John Demjanjuk, accused of being the sadistic Nazi death camp guard “Ivan the Terrible,” went on trial for his life here Monday in a proceeding that Israel hopes will familiarize a new generation with the horrors of the Holocaust.

The trial, being broadcast live over state-run Israel radio and expected to last for between three and six months, is only the second under Israel’s 1950 Nazi and Nazi collaborators law. The first trial condemned Adolf Eichmann to death by hanging in 1962 as the architect of what Hitler’s Germany conceived 45 years ago as the “final solution of the Jewish question in Europe.”

‘Trial of Implementers’

“If the Eichmann trial was the trial of the initiators, this is the trial of the implementers,” commented Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office and an expert in the history of the Holocaust, during a break in Monday’s proceedings.


“Boker tov (good morning)!” the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, 66, shouted in Hebrew to about 300 newsmen and spectators on hand as the main part of his trial opened. They were the only words he spoke publicly during seven hours of mostly technical arguments.

Demjanjuk’s American lawyer, Mark O’Connor, had already entered an innocent plea for his client during a brief court session last November. The trial was postponed at that time in order to allow O’Connor more of an opportunity to prepare an adequate defense.

The attorney repeated the innocent plea Monday, saying that while the defense acknowledged the crimes of “Ivan the Terrible” as outlined in a 26-page indictment, Demjanjuk is not the same man. He alleged that the former auto worker was himself a German prisoner of war and that he had never been in a Nazi death camp, much less collaborated in executing Jews.

In preliminary remarks, O’Connor also challenged the Israeli court’s jurisdiction in the case and argued that because Demjanjuk had been extradited from the United States last year on a murder charge, he could not, according to Israeli law, be tried for the more serious offense of war crimes and crimes against humanity.


Had the court accepted the latter contention, explained Demjanjuk’s Israeli co-counsel, Yoram Sheftel, the maximum penalty even if he was found guilty would have been life imprisonment. War crimes are the only offense punishable by death here.

However, Chief Justice Dov Levin, speaking for a three-judge panel hearing the case, postponed consideration of O’Connor’s technical arguments regarding jurisdiction and rejected his position regarding the terms of Demjanjuk’s extradition.

Levin also rejected Sheftel’s contention that since Demjanjuk did not challenge the history of the Holocaust as set down in the prosecution’s indictment, or even the description of “Ivan the Terrible’s” involvement, it was unnecessary for the court to hear evidence on anything except the question of Demjanjuk’s true identity.

“You cannot take it for granted that every person in Israel, or even in this court, is aware of these facts (about the Holocaust),” Levin said.


State’s Case Summarized

During a 2 1/2-hour afternoon session, a four-man prosecution team summarized the state’s case against Demjanjuk, saying that its evidence left “no doubt” that the defendant was guilty “of the most terrible crimes committed in the course of history.”

The state alleged that Demjanjuk, a soldier with a World War II Soviet artillery unit, was recruited by the Germans--after his capture on the Russian front--into a unit of “auxiliaries” trained to work in the extermination camps.

It said he served as a guard at the infamous Treblinka death camp, east of Warsaw, for at least 11 months during 1942 and 1943. There, it contended, he helped drive up to 850,000 men, women, and children from the railroad boxcars in which they were delivered to the camp, through an area where they were stripped naked, along a pathway known sadistically as the “Road to Heaven,” and into the gas chambers, were they were systematically asphyxiated.


Known for Cruelty

Because of his extraordinary cruelty, the prosecution alleged, Demjanjuk was known in the camp and the surrounding villages as “Ivan the Terrible.” It contended that he tormented the victims on their way to death by beating them with a whip or iron pipe and maiming them with a sword or bayonet. He was also allegedly responsible for operating the giant motor that sent poisonous exhaust fumes into the gas chambers.

After the war, prosecuting attorney Michael Shaked told the court, Demjanjuk lied about his past in order to emigrate to the United States under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. He settled in Cleveland and became a naturalized citizen in 1958.

In 1976, Shaked related, the U.S. Justice Department received information that Demjanjuk had collaborated with the Nazis and lied on his immigration questionnaire. During nine years of legal proceedings in the United States, he said, a 1951 photograph acknowledged to be of Demjanjuk was identified by Treblinka survivors as that of “Ivan the Terrible.”


Identification Disputed

Another key piece of prosecution evidence is a disputed German identification card purporting to show that Demjanjuk was, in fact, trained at a special facility for death camp guards. The defense contends that the card, allegedly discovered by Soviet troops who pushed the German army back across Poland, was actually forged by the Russians as part of a larger effort to stigmatize traditionally anti-Communist emigre communities as hotbeds of Nazi war criminals.

Demjanjuk (pronounced DEHM-yahn-yook) was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981 and extradited to Israel a year ago. He has been held in a solitary prison cell awaiting trial here ever since.

Security was tight around the converted concert hall that will serve as Demjanjuk’s courtroom. Journalists and other spectators had to pass through a metal detector to gain admission, and scores of paramilitary border guards and police stood watch inside and outside the building. Police used dogs to search for possible bombs in the shrubbery outside.


However, earlier plans for the defendant to sit in the same bulletproof glass cage that held Eichmann during his trial 26 years ago were dropped, and Demjanjuk sat in an open dock between a policeman and a translator who gave him a running account of the proceedings in his native Ukrainian.

Helps With Translation

The retired auto worker embraced attorneys O’Connor and Sheftel and his 21-year-old son, John Demjanjuk Jr., as he entered the courtroom at 8:25 a.m. Monday wearing a chocolate-brown suit and white shirt, open at the collar. His son sat behind him during the trial, occasionally helping with the translation into Ukrainian.

More than 200 Israeli spectators on hand appeared to be a cross section of the population and were generally attentive and well-behaved during the proceedings.


The crowd included teen-agers and white-haired Holocaust survivors; two members of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, and at least two rows full of ultra-Orthodox Jews clad in long black coats and sporting traditional side curls.

“I’m here mainly because it’s interesting,” said 16-year-old Chaim Moshe, an immigrant from the Soviet Union. “I know about the Holocaust, but I personally don’t feel it.”

But Avraham Bar-On, a philosophy professor at Hebrew University, said: “My parents lived in Warsaw and probably faced their death in Treblinka. So if it is proved that John Demjanjuk is ‘Ivan the Terrible,’ then he did it. He killed my parents.

“I feel I have the right to forget the Holocaust,” the educator added. “But it keeps coming back.”


Israelis Ambivalent

Bar-On’s remark reflected a broader ambivalence about the Demjanjuk trial that one finds among Israelis. State television, for example, has said it will not televise the proceedings live, in part because the case has not generated the amount of national and international interest anticipated.

There was a scattering of empty seats in the auditorium throughout Monday’s proceedings.

“Unlike the controversy elsewhere, there is no one in Israel who feels that Nazi war criminals should not be tried,” contended the Wiesenthal Center’s Zuroff. But, he said, one does find here “a certain ambivalence about the Holocaust.” He said it stems from a number of factors, including questions about whether the wartime Jewish leadership in Palestine did as much as it could to save Europe’s Jews, the relative lack of armed Jewish resistance to the “final solution” and controversy about the response of Jewish communities in Nazi-occupied Europe.


“Demjanjuk, even though he’s not related at all to these issues, brings back the memory of these very painful questions,” Zuroff said. He compared the situation to that of rape victims who sometimes feel guilty about what happened to them.

Zuroff added that Israeli teachers are expected to bring their students to the trial to help teach them about the Holocaust. “If they don’t,” he said, “then they’ve missed the point.”