KGB Evidence Reopens the Case of ‘Ivan the Terrible’ : Holocaust: Recently released files bolster the appeal of the man convicted as a Nazi death camp monster.
In the spring of 1988, the trial of accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk came to a dramatic end as the three judges said with assurance: “We hereby rule, without any second thoughts or wavering, that the defendant, Ivan John Demjanjuk, who stands here before us, is Ivan, known as Ivan the Terrible, who ran the gas chambers at Treblinka.”
Not long after, a judge ruled with equal sternness that “the court must impose the death penalty.”
Last August, after hearing the latest round of arguments in his long appeal, Demjanjuk seemed confident that the sentence would never be carried out. “If all goes well,” predicted the Ukrainian-born auto worker from Cleveland, “I’m going home.”
A shadow of doubt is spreading over a verdict that seemed to have closed the horrific case of a man described as a sadistic monster, a “man from another planet,” in the words of one witness, who took pleasure in torturing concentration camp inmates before driving them into airtight rooms and activating the machinery of poison gas.
Evidence gleaned from the Soviet KGB, which under glasnost (openness) became generous with information that had been locked up for decades, has fed the doubt that was unthinkable almost four years ago. The documents suggest that Demjanjuk is not the guard whom prisoners called Ivan the Terrible. The evidence includes a telling photograph, accounts from prison guards who themselves were convicted in secret trials over the years and documents from Germany that list the names Ivan Demjanjuk and Ivan Marchenko--the man the defense claims was Ivan the Terrible.
It may soon be decided whether the sum of new accounts will mean freedom for Demjanjuk, an immigrant who was deprived of his American citizenship and extradited to Israel in 1986. Israel’s Supreme Court is scheduled to reconvene Monday to review the evidence and hear the prosecution try to refute it.
“It’s a mistake, clear and simple,” argued Yoram Sheftel, the defender of Demjanjuk. “My client is not Ivan the Terrible.”
Even observers of the trial who were once convinced of Demjanjuk’s guilt are preparing for a possible reversal. “If he is not Ivan the Terrible, we can take heart that this was discovered in a Jewish court in Israel,” said Harry Wall, the Jerusalem director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Beyond the fate of Demjanjuk himself, the trial’s end will raise issues about the process itself and the fading of Holocaust memory. Was the trial an exercise in justice or a ritual means of educating new generations to the horror? Should such trials be carried out in emotionally wrenched Israel or in countries where the events took place and which perhaps need the reminder?
“It is hard to assume that strong feelings--not only on the part of those who were direct victims of the Nazis--allows one to hold a trial which is free of psychological pressures which is necessary to a pure trial,” wrote commentator Ran Kaslo in the Haaretz newspaper. “The holding of trials in such an atmosphere is in danger of leading to legal errors. In everything connected to the Holocaust, we must not make such mistakes.”
A clear and clean result is unlikely. Stumbling over the new evidence, prosecutors hinted that they will shift gears and try to convict Demjanjuk of crimes he allegedly committed while a wachmann , or guard, at another death camp, Sobibor in Poland.
At the August hearing, lawyer Michael Shaked launched a new line of argument. “There is no moral difference whether Demjanjuk pushed one Jewish child into the gas chamber in Sobibor or Treblinka,” Shaked argued. “Even if the defense is successful in proving that Demjanjuk was not present at Treblinka, years of trial have proved that Demjanjuk is a Nazi war criminal. Will we now ask for his forgiveness?”
One judge on the three-judge appeals panel sensed that 8,800 pages of testimony from 32 witnesses, 273 exhibits and a 744-page verdict were being shifted from Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka onto someone else from some other place. “You are turning your attention to Sobibor and Trawniki,” the judge declared, also referring to a wachmann training school. “What about Treblinka?”
“I will deal with Treblinka later,” responded Shaked, who has refused interviews until the appeals have run their course.
Central to the new evidence is a photograph of Ivan the Terrible and a description that does not match the 1942 appearance of Demjanjuk except in the general, ovular shape of the face. The accounts of 21 guards who were tried in the Soviet Union on war crimes gave details that differentiate Demjanjuk from Ivan the Terrible--mostly that the last name of Ivan was Marchenko. One described Ivan the Terrible as having brown hair, hazel eyes and a large scar down to his neck; Demjanjuk was blond with grayish-blue eyes and no such scar.
The witnesses, all Ukrainians who were tried, convicted and executed in the Soviet Union between 1944 and 1961, were Red Army soldiers captured by the Nazis and trained as wachmanner for work in the death camps.
The evidence undermines some of the proof in the original case, which relied on a single German identification card that showed Demjanjuk to have been a wachmann trained at Trawniki and posted at Sobibor and on the testimony of four Treblinka survivors who identified Demjanjuk as Ivan and pointed him out in court.
Neither the card nor any other piece of physical evidence placed Demjanjuk at Treblinka. A photo lineup for identification purposes, according to Sheftel, was flawed by a group of dummy pictures that had no resemblance at all to either Marchenko or Demjanjuk.
At the time of the trial, observers expressed skepticism about the power of the evidence. “There are also many thoughtful people who, while they believe in Demjanjuk’s guilt, are not satisfied that it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt,” wrote reporter Ernie Meyer in the Jerusalem Post.
There remains a startling coincidence between Ivan the Terrible’s apparent last name--Marchenko--and Demjanjuk’s use of the same name when he applied for a U.S. visa in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1948. On the form, he gave his mother’s name as Marchenko. The prosecution charged that Demjanjuk used also Marchenko as an alias when he worked for the Nazis. Sheftel rejected the charge, producing a document that shows Demjanjuk’s mother’s maiden name was Tabachuk. Demjanjuk used Marchenko because he didn’t know his mother’s last name and instead selected a common Ukrainian name.
Recently, prosecutors uncovered a Nazi SS list that bears the name Demjanjuk and the same identification number as the card exhibited at the trial. While undercutting Demjanjuk’s courtroom claim that the card was a forgery, it nonetheless fails to put him at Treblinka.
In addition, a separate personnel file lists an Ivan Marchenko. “The appearance of the names Demjanjuk and Marchenko in documents emanating from German sources would seem to disprove the prosecution claim that an Ivan the Terrible named Marchenko did not exist and that, in fact, he was identical with Demjanjuk,” the Jerusalem Post wrote.
The discovery of the new KGB evidence is an odd tale in itself, involving a combination of dogged pursuit and fortune. While on an investigative trip to Poland, Sheftel heard about testimony that existed in the Soviet Union. The evidence was tied in with the case of Fyodor Fedorenko, another naturalized U.S. citizen who was extradited to the Soviet Union in 1985, tried and executed.
In September, 1990, Sheftel got in touch with a judge who knew of the Fedorenko file and agreed to ask the KGB for it. At first, the KGB was willing to hand over the documents but then changed its mind when another Israeli team--this one from the prosecution--requested it.
Sheftel said access to the file was denied him until July, then given to him only after he threatened that Demjanjuk would stage a hunger strike to try to force release of the documents to the defense.
The record of testimony brought from the Soviet Union is gripping in its detail of murder-made-an-industry. Witnesses told of how Ivan the Terrible and other guards drove Jews to the gas chamber with dogs and clubs, how Ivan beat prisoners with an iron pipe and sliced off the breasts of women. He and a guard who had the title of “motor mechanic” urged the doomed prisoners--men, women and children--to enter the “bathhouse” quickly or “the water will get cold,” according to the record.
It is this reminder of brutality that compels some observers to insist that, despite the raw emotions evoked, trials serve a wider public purpose.
“New facts and new revelations come to light,” said Yehuda Bauer, a prominent Holocaust scholar. “The Holocaust has become a cultural symbol of tremendous importance. It is important that the full capability of evil be exposed.”
Bauer predicts that glasnost will provide a wealth of new information to keep historians busy for decades. The Soviets, he pointed out, carried on exhaustive interviews after World War II in occupied areas of Europe to get an account of what had happened under Nazi occupation.
Bauer rejects suggestions that, based on the circus atmosphere that prevailed in some phases of Demjanjuk’s trial, Israel is an unfit place to hold such trials. “There is no cry for revenge in the street,” he argued. “Most Israelis relate to it as an act of justice. The story has to be brought out, whether Demjanjuk is guilty or not.”
Wall, from the ADL, is concerned that the Demjanjuk case will be seen as a “goof” and perhaps throw into doubt other accounts of Nazi atrocities. “This is no kangaroo court or show trial. It is clear that if Demjanjuk is not Ivan the Terrible, he is at least Ivan the Not Very Good. There are other crimes to be accounted for,” Wall said.
Countered Sheftel: “John Demjanjuk was brought here for being Ivan the Terrible, tried as Ivan the Terrible. It cannot be suddenly irrelevant if he is not Ivan the Terrible.”