Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: Call Him Ivan the Terrible

Demjanjuk will be back in the news because his attempts to deny his Nazi past and avoid final deportation from the US have been exhausted. Two questions remain: When will Demjanjuk be deported from the US, and to what country?
Published: Tuesday, July 26, 2005 10:02 PM


Call him Ivan the Terrible. After all, that is what US and Israeli courts call him, but not what his family may say in the coming weeks. From them, you will again hear their story of mistaken identity and injustice. The injustice, however, only stems from the continued misinformation campaign headed by Nazi John "Ivan the Terrible" Demjanjuk's son-in-law, Ed Nishnic, a former bakery truck driver who married into the Demjanjuk family during Demjanjuk's trial in the US.

Demjanjuk will be back in the news because his attempts to deny his Nazi past and avoid final deportation from the US have been exhausted. Two questions remain: When will Demjanjuk be deported from the US, and to what country?

You will hear claims that Israel acquitted Demjanjuk, but this is not true. Demjanjuk was found guilty of the crimes of Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka in Israeli courts. Israel affirmed the conclusion of the US courts that Demjanjuk volunteered to serve as an SS guard and was not a prisoner of war as he claimed. After his initial deportation, Demjanjuk was found guilty of war crimes in Israel, was sentenced to death by hanging, and had several appeals, which culminated in a review of the sentence by the Israeli Supreme Court. The court reviewed the death sentence he received, but not the conviction itself, because according to Israeli law, the only sentence for a convicted Nazi is death by hanging. Israel established hanging as the only sentence for Nazis because it did not want to be seen as jailing them. Right or wrong, the law was established to avoid comparisons of Israel to the Nazis.

Under both Israeli and Jewish law, there can be no doubt of guilt when carrying out a death sentence. US law only requires guilt beyond reasonable doubt. These legal nuances impact how people in the US perceive this case and explain how people can mistakenly conclude Israel acquitted Demjanjuk, which Israel did not do.

In the Israeli Supreme Court's automatic review of the death sentence, Demjanjuk's lawyers produced a document that would have been inadmissible in US courts because the author had passed away and the information in it, therefore, could not be verified or cross-examined. The document was from a Nazi who stated that he served as an SS guard with Demjanjuk at Sobibor. The document did not say one way or another if the author knew if Demjanjuk went to Treblinka, which the trial was about ? the crimes of Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka.

Since the author did not mention Treblinka, the court had a dilemma. The defense submitted a letter stating and admitting that Demjanjuk was indeed a Nazi and did serve as an SS guard. Although the letter did not deny Demjanjuk's work as a Nazi concentration camp guard, it did not specifically mention Treblinka. The document presented a question ? is it possible that the author knew all of Demjanjuk's assignments and that Treblinka was not one of them? Despite all the evidence that Demjanjuk volunteered to serve as an SS guard at Treblinka, and is in fact Ivan the Terrible, there was a miniscule doubt, based on one person's lack of knowledge of events after a certain date. This was enough to overturn a death penalty under Israeli law.

As a result, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned Nazi Demjanjuk's death penalty, but did not throw out the conviction. Demjanjuk still stands guilty in Israel of being the sadistic Nazi death camp guard Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka, but Israel had no choice but to return him to the US under the terms of the extradition treaty and order.

You will hear claims that he was never found guilty of war crimes in the US. While there is some truth to this claim, it is only half the story. Demjanjuk was not tried in the US for war crimes. He was brought to trial for lies on his immigration application, because the US lacked laws on the books to prosecute war crimes. In order to prove Nazi Demjanjuk lied on his immigration paperwork, claiming he had nothing to do with war crimes, the US had to prove he was someone different. In open court, the US proved he was Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka. Demjanjuk has been identified in US courts as a Nazi war criminal despite the fact that his trial was not for committing such crimes.

You may hear claims that if Israel could not convict him, he must not be guilty of anything. Beware of this argument. It is sometimes used by Holocaust deniers who claim that Israel's inability to convict Demjanjuk is proof that nobody can be convicted of such crimes because the Holocaust never existed.

You will hear claims of mistaken identity, but those claims are not true. Demjanjuk was the first Nazi to claim mistaken identity as proof of innocence. The proof John Demjanjuk and Ivan the Terrible are one and the same came in many forms, including eyewitness testimony and the original Nazi ID card that includes his photograph and signature. The Nazi documents were analyzed and authenticated by the US and Israeli courts. Using modern photographic analysis techniques, commonly used in forensic and criminal investigations, experts identified the photo on the ID card of Ivan the Terrible as being John Demjanjuk.

You will hear claims that Demjanjuk is an old man in failing health who should now be left alone after all these years. As such, we should remember several things. First, there is no statute of limitations on murder. Considering the effort the US took to prosecute Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson, who each murdered on a large scale but nowhere near the scale of Demjanjuk, we have an even larger moral obligation to prosecute Demjanjuk. Additionally, this case has dragged on for so many years because Demjanjuk lied in court and he should not be rewarded for that.

You may hear about how much support there is for Demjanjuk's release as an innocent man. When Demjanjuk returned from Israel to his home in the Cleveland area, he had to sneak home on Sukkot to avoid the protesters in front of his house. As the protest organizer, I can tell you we blocked a mass homecoming party that included "Welcome Home John" signs over highways. Demjanjuk's main support came from the city of Seven Hills, where he lives, which did everything it could to block Jews from protesting in its city limits. The city efforts also included investigating me and an attempt by a police officer to run me over. Interestingly enough, we saw no challenge to block the Ku Klux Klan, which demonstrated its support for the Nazi.

While local television news programs repeated the mistaken identity claims of Demjanjuk's family, a representative of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland made a comment on the local news programs stating they were against protests against Demjanjuk because of fears of damage to Jewish community relations with the Ukrainian community. That was akin to saying we should not say anything negative about Islamist extremists after 9-11. The reality is that the Ukrainian community should have stood with the Jewish protesters against Demjanjuk, rather than protecting him as one of its own. More importantly, no Jewish Community Federation should have ever taken a stance against Holocaust survivors. In spite of that, students in youth groups such as Betar and B'nei Akiva protested with Holocaust survivors in front of the Nazi's home. Under pressure to do something, the Cleveland Federation later held a unity rally in which protest spokesmen such as myself and Rabbi Avi Weiss were banned from even getting near the stage under threat of arrest by the Cleveland police.

I testified in court for the right to protest in front of the Demjanjuk home because Seven Hills, Ohio, did not want Jews in their city. We won in court, including winning the right of simultaneous protest against the KKK. It would have been nice to have the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland helping us in court. Instead, we had the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, which we welcomed, representing us and our right to freedom of speech. The ACLU had been looking for a case to defend the Constitutional rights of Jews to protest for many years, as balance to their defense of the infamous Nazi march in Skokie. It is sad that not one Jewish organization came to our defense. We stood alone against a Nazi, and we won.

Demjanjuk stands guilty of being Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka in both US and Israeli courts, and none of the evidence against him has ever been disproved, despite what the Demjanjuk family and the KKK may claim. Regardless of what stands in our way, it is important that we stand up for ourselves and those who perished before us at the hands of evil people such as Ivan the Terrible.