John Demjanjuk back on trial

Ha'aretz | May 29, 2001
John Demjanjuk back on trial for alleged Nazi past | Reuters

CLEVELAND - John Demjanjuk, the aging Ukrainian immigrant said by the U.S. government to have served the Nazi killing machine in World War II, was put on trial for the second time in 20 years Tuesday with his attorney arguing that "trial by document" will never uncover the truth.

The burly, 81-year-old retired auto worker did not appear in the U.S. District Court to face government charges that he lied about his wartime past and should be stripped of his U.S. citizenship. However, he could testify in his own defense, his lawyer said.

Demjanjuk was not required to appear, though his son, John Demjanjuk Jr., and son-in-law were both at the defense table in Judge Paul Matia's courtroom.

"Either the government's history is right or the defendant's is," prosecutor Edward Stutman of the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations said in his opening statement. "It is indisputable that unspeakable horrors occurred."

"The issues in this case are narrow. At the heart of this case is seven wartime documents" that Stutman said will show that Demjanjuk worked as a guard in three German concentration camps including Sobibor, a notorious extermination camp where 250,000 mostly Polish Jews were killed.

Prosecutors began the laborious process of calling a handwriting specialist and three more expert witnesses who will attempt to authenticate the documents, including a disputed identification card bearing what appears to be a young Demjanjuk's picture issued to him at the SS-run Trawniki training camp.

Defense attorney Michael Tigar said in his opening statement that the government's case amounted to "hearsay records" that he planned to challenge at nearly every opportunity. As to the infamous identification card, Tigar alleged the photograph had been replaced and some of the inks used were of Soviet origin and not German.

"Without the testimony of any live witness who saw John Demjanjuk commit any [of the charged] acts ... this is a trial by document," Tigar said. He said no wartime Demjanjuk signature exists to support the government's view, nor is there fingerprint or DNA evidence. Some of the documents are suspicious and may be forgeries, he said.


"We will show the court a scenario that explains how the government, once again, has got it wrong," Tigar said. "After 22 years, the odyssey of John Demjanjuk is about to come to an end."

Demjanjuk, who gained entry into the United States in 1951 claiming he had spent much of the war as a German prisoner captured in the Crimea from the Soviet army, was first charged with war crimes in 1977 and stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981 in what would become an embarrassing case for the Justice Department.

Apparently swayed by the identification of Demjanjuk by survivors of the Treblinka extermination camp, prosecutors alleged that Demjanjuk, whose given name was Ivan, was the brutal death camp guard nicknamed "Ivan the Terrible."

Extradited and put on trial in Israel, Demjanjuk was sentenced to death in 1988 for being Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka, despite his denials that he was never there. But evidence mostly from inside the Soviet Union, some of which had been available to U.S. prosecutors, convinced the Israeli Supreme Court that another Ukrainian, Ivan Marchenko, was likely the brutal guard who whipped and tortured Jews as they were herded into the gas chambers.

The Israeli court freed Demjanjuk in 1993 and he returned to the United States where judges reprimanded the Justice Department and Judge Matia ultimately restored his citizenship.

Stutman did not address the past errors, but said Demjanjuk's various alibis for his wartime activities offered over the past two decades have been rejected by U.S. and Israeli courts "time and time again."

The most recent version of events offered by Tigar based on purported new evidence from Ukrainian authorities is that Demjanjuk's now-dead cousin, Ivan Andreievich Demjanjuk, took his identity when recruited by the Germans to help in "Operation Reinhard," the Nazi's "Final Solution" for the Polish Jews.

Tigar said Ukrainians who served in the Soviet army and were captured and recruited by Germany were loathe to provide their real names because they were about to betray their country. Also, Germans had trouble with Ukrainian names and might have mangled translations.

Government prosecutors said Demjanjuk's newest alibi lacked credibility. "What identity thief would steal his own name?" Stutman said of the purported cousin.

The trial, to be ruled on by Judge Matia, was expected to last at least two weeks, attorneys said, but deportation proceedings could take years to complete.