Jewish World Review / June 11, 2001

Eric Fettmann

Demjanjuk, Again!?

JOHN Demjanjuk is on trial again in a Cleveland federal courtroom as prosecutors renewed their efforts to strip the accused Nazi war criminal of his restored U.S. citizenship.

What, again? The same John Demjanjuk who was rescued from death row in Israel after it turned out that he wasn't "Ivan the Terrible" of Treblinka death camp --- even though a dozen Holocaust survivors had identified him as such?

Yes, there's a new chapter in Demjanjuk's quarter-century fight against charges of involvement in the Holocaust. Is he the victim of overzealous prosecutors hell-bent on saving face to cover up past errors? Or did errors in the earlier case against him mask his real participation in the Nazi war of extermination against European Jewry?

There's a lot riding on this hearing. The collapse of the first Demjanjuk case clearly emboldened the Holocaust-denial crowd. To them, the fact that so many survivors erred in their testimony -- and that the U.S. government perpetrated what a U.S. Court of Appeals panel labeled "fraud on the court" -- was clear proof of a plot to perpetrate a historic fraud.

So if the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI) loses its latest bid to brand the 81-year-old Demjanjuk a wartime collaborator, those who rant about the "holocaust myth" will have fresh cause to celebrate.

Which is why some feel Demjanjuk should be left alone to enjoy his retirement and revel in the fact that he beat the charges.

But all available evidence speaks strongly to the fact that Demjanjuk was in death camps as a Nazi guard. Simple jstice demands that he be held accountable.

Yes, we've heard this before --- and the earlier compelling facts were wrong. But this case has been an anomaly from Day One.

Demjanjuk's defenders charged from the start that he was the victim of a Soviet frame-up. Yet it was Soviet evidence -- KGB files from the heart of the Stalinist terror, released after the fall of communism - that exonerated him of the Treblinka charges.

In the trial in Israel, Demjanjuk's lawyers complained that the case against him was based solely on eyewitnesses, without supporting documents. Now they charge that the current case against him is based solely on documents, without supporting eyewitnesses.

Documents that proved Demjanjuk could not have been at Treblinka did show that he served as a guard at other Nazi facilities: the Trawniki training camp for SS guards and the concentration camps of Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenburg. Nor are these exclusively from ex-Soviet sources. Of the seven WWII documents that form the new case, three are from West German archives.

Then there's the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk's ever-changing alibi that he spent most of the war as a German POW. The details are contradicted at every level by known historical fact. And when asked on U.S. visa documents in 1948 where he'd spent the war, he answered "Sobibor." He now says someone else told him to write that.

Demjanjuk now says that even if the documents are authentic, they actually belong to an identically named cousin from the same village who "stole" his identity. Yet he never even heard of this cousin before 1999 --- indeed, he's testified that his entire family perished in Stalin's forced famines of the '30s.

The current allegations against Demjanjuk are identical to those first leveled - by Soviet sources - in 1976. The charge that he was "Ivan the Terrible" did not originate from the USSR --- which never wavered from its insistence that he was Ivan of Sobibor, not of Treblinka.

If found culpable, Demjanjuk will not return to prison. He will simply be stripped of his citizenship; deportation proceedings are unlikely.

So why press the case? Because there is a moral imperative at work here. Even as he was restoring Demjanjuk's citizenship in 1998, Judge Paul Matia (who is hearing the new case) warned against a defendant being "insulated from the consequences of his alleged moral turpitude" simply because of alleged government misconduct.

Indeed, he added, "A court must be vigilant that it not allow unspeakable horrors to go unpunished in the name of preserving the abstract principle of justice."


JWR contributor Eric Fettmann is a columnist for the New York Post.