John Demjanjuk, acquitted of being “Ivan the Terrible,” the Nazi death camp guard who sent tens of thousands of Jews to the gas chambers, left Israel on Tuesday night, a free man after 7 1/2 years in prison here.
The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, now 73, was released from Ayalon Prison outside Tel Aviv, driven to Ben-Gurion International Airport and placed aboard the regular flight to New York by the Israeli airline, El Al.
Asked by reporters how it felt to be free, the retired auto worker held up his hands, still locked in handcuffs, but said nothing as he left the prison.
“He is not spending much time looking back,” said his son, John Demjanjuk Jr., as he prepared to take his father back to the family home in Cleveland.
“He is looking ahead at the time he’s going to spend with his grandchildren. Hopefully, by the end of this week, the family will be reunited, and there will be grandchildren sitting on my father’s lap.”
Dressed in a white-and-blue striped shirt, dark trousers and a white straw hat, Demjanjuk looked like he was setting out for a golf game, not emerging from years of solitary confinement largely spent awaiting execution for war crimes.
His face relaxed into a slight smile only when the handcuffs were removed and he boarded the airliner, taking his seat at the very front of the Boeing 747, surrounded by relatives and bodyguards.
“We feel really good,” Ed Nishnic, his son-in-law, said. “We can’t wait to get home.”
Angry passengers shouted and crowded in the aisles as Demjanjuk boarded the plane, and El Al crew members and security personnel needed half an hour to restore order so the flight could leave.
“The reason we are on El Al is they are probably the most secure airline in the world,” Nishnic had told reporters. The militant Kach movement, which failed in a legal bid to have Demjanjuk tried for other war crimes after his acquittal, has threatened to kill him.
Once he returns to Ohio, Demjanjuk will have to fight to remain in the United States. He was stripped of his citizenship more than a decade ago after a court found that he had lied about his activities during World War II in applying for admission to the United States.
“Mr. Demjanjuk is not afraid to come back and look the Justice Department in the eyes,” Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio), who is also accompanying Demjanjuk back to Cleveland, said. “He wants his citizenship back, he wants his family back, he wants to live in America.”
Demjanjuk will enter the United States on the basis of a court ruling that he be allowed to return to challenge both his 1986 extradition to Israel and the ruling revoking his U.S. citizenship. His lawyers contend that he may not have received fair hearings in those cases because the Justice Department withheld evidence in his favor.
He had been accused of being the guard, known as “Ivan the Terrible,” at the Treblinka death camp who pushed tens of thousands of Jews into gas chambers there, beating them and laughing as he did so.
Extradited to Israel in February, 1986, Demjanjuk was convicted in April, 1988, of war crimes and crimes against humanity on the basis of identification by five survivors from Treblinka and sentenced to death.
But the Israeli Supreme Court, after reviewing fresh evidence, said at the end of July that Demjanjuk had not been at Treblinka, though he was probably a guard at another death camp, Sobibor.
Israeli Atty. Gen. Yosef Harish refused to prosecute Demjanjuk again on charges arising from his alleged service at Sobibor, saying it would violate his legal right not to be tried twice on the same charges.
Holocaust survivors and Nazi hunters managed, however, to delay Demjanjuk’s release for more than six weeks, but on Sunday a Supreme Court justice dismissed the last petitions demanding another trial.
Throughout the case, Demjanjuk maintained that he was innocent.
“I believe that justice has been done,” Nishnic, Demjanjuk’s son-in-law, said Tuesday. “We have had a lot of faith in the system of justice in the state of Israel, and I think it worked and worked for all. . . . We will leave this country with a good feeling.”
Times researcher Dianna M. Cahn reported for this story from Ayalon Prison and Ben-Gurion International Airport.