Los Angeles Times | July 14, 2001 | COLUMN ONE

Nazi Saga Takes a New Turn

By ERIC SLATER, Times Staff Writer

CLEVELAND -- Twenty-four years ago this summer, the U.S. Justice Department made a remarkable allegation: One of World War II's most notorious and malevolent practitioners of genocide was not only alive and well, he was living in Cleveland.

"Ivan the Terrible," the government said, who drunkenly beat Jews as they entered the gas chambers at Treblinka, then turned on the gas himself before heading out to rape local girls, now had a wife, two children and a yellow-brick house in the suburbs. He worked at the Ford plant and went by the name John Demjanjuk.

The government and its new Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations, it would turn out, had the wrong man.

Yet 2 1/2 decades after the government began pursuing him, eight years after Israel's Supreme Court freed him from death row when it became obvious the Demjanjuk case had gone horribly awry, the OSI is seeking once again to denaturalize and deport him.

Ivan "John" Demjanjuk, now 81, wasn't Ivan the Terrible, government lawyers acknowledge, and he probably was never at Treblinka. But Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian farm boy drafted by the Soviet army and quickly wounded and captured by the Nazis, was pressed into service as a guard at three Nazi camps, government attorneys alleged at a recent non-jury civil trial here. And when he emigrated to the United States in 1948, the government says, he lied to conceal that fact.

Prosecutors have no witnesses placing Demjanjuk at any of the camps, for he has outlived most Jewish survivors as well as any known guards. Prosecutors also allege no specific criminal acts; courts have ruled that a person who performed any duty at a Nazi camp, willing or unwilling, should be turned away at the U.S. border.

The OSI's case is based almost entirely on a worn, yellowed identification card issued by the Nazis to one Iwan Demjanjuk and six other decades-old documents, several of which were stored in secret archives in the former Soviet Union and discovered only after its breakup in 1991.

Prosecutors say the paper trail shows Demjanjuk served the Nazis at the concentration camps Majdanek and Flossenburg and at the extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland, where 250,000 Polish Jews were killed.

Sobibor was a highly efficient killing camp, the government and many historians say, operated by just a few dozen members of the SS overseeing 120 or so captured Soviets ordered to serve as guards. Most Jews were gassed the same day they arrived. Anyone serving there in any capacity at all, Jewish groups argue, has much blood on his hands.

"If someone worked at a Ford plant, they made cars for a living," said Neal Sher, who headed the OSI from 1982 to 1994. "If someone worked at Sobibor, they killed Jews for a living."

But Demjanjuk's defenders say the documents underpinning the government's case, which spell his surname four different ways and were scattered across two continents after the war, show little other than that the OSI is again pursuing the wrong man.

And they contend the OSI--which was found by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to have "acted with reckless disregard for the truth" in its first case against Demjanjuk--is seeking not justice but misplaced vengeance against an octogenarian who, as a wounded POW, would have had little say over his wartime role anyway.

"To go from Ivan the Terrible to Ivan-the-Bad-Enough . . . I don't know why [OSI] would want to do this, especially considering what the court had to say about their behavior in the first trial," said Mark O'Connor, one of the attorneys who represented Demjanjuk in Israel. "I don't think it does justice to the Holocaust, and certainly not to the survivors."

The latest case against Demjanjuk, which is expected to be decided sometime this summer by U.S. District Judge Paul R. Matia, is part detective story, part war story, and it is filled entirely with death and grief.

It is also likely to be the OSI's last major effort against an alleged Nazi. Organized in 1979 to hunt Axis war criminals, the office is fast running out of quarry. Meanwhile, Congress is preparing to decide whether to continue funding the office and expand its charter to hunt modern-day war criminals.

During the quarter-century the OSI has pursued Demjanjuk, several hundred suspected war criminals, from places including Sierra Leone, Bosnia, El Salvador and Rwanda, have settled in the U.S. Some are alleged butchers who would face reams of fresh evidence and dozens of living witnesses should they be prosecuted. For now, though, the government wants John Demjanjuk.

Dienstausweis, the folded paper card is called, a service identity pass. It was issued at the SS-run Trawniki Training Camp to new arrival Iwan Demjanjuk, whose boyish face is pictured in the upper right-hand corner, in black and white. The card lists his job as Wachmann, or guard; his date and place of birth, father's name, national origin (Ukraine) and a physical description, including a scar not unlike the one on the back of John Demjanjuk of Cleveland. It also has the holder's signature, in Cyrillic script.

The card indicates the new POW was dispatched to Okzow, a Nazi-run farm, on Sept. 22, 1942. On March 27, 1943, it says, he was sent to work at Sobibor.

The ID card, scrutinized and analyzed down to the iron content of its purplish ink, is the linchpin of the OSI's latest case. But it is not new to the OSI. Indeed, the Trawniki card was very nearly the linchpin of the first case against Demjanjuk.

More than 20 years ago, the OSI was prepared to argue essentially the same case it has just presented here, with fewer documents but potentially several living witnesses. The primary allegation then, as now, was to be that Demjanjuk served as a low-level guard at Sobibor and other camps--but not Treblinka--then lied about that service upon entering the U.S.

Everything changed when an even darker possibility arose: that the Cleveland auto worker was not just another death camp guard but rather someone who, even amid the Nazi orgy of murder, managed to distinguish himself as singularly evil.

The specter of Ivan Grozny arose quite by accident.

In 1976, before the birth of OSI, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service mailed Israeli Nazi-hunters 17 mug shots of suspected Nazi collaborators. The INS was most interested in another Ukrainian-born emigre, a man named Feodor Fedorenko. Israeli investigators happened to place Demjanjuk's 1951 visa photo next to the picture of Fedorenko.

In a newspaper ad, the Israeli government asked Treblinka survivors to come view the photos to see if they could identify any as their tormentors. Several identified Fedorenko, who would later be deported to the Soviet Union and executed.

Several others, however, were more interested in photograph No. 16. That man, they said, was the one they called "Ivan Grozny," Polish for Ivan the Terrible. That launched the case against Demjanjuk.

By the time of the first trial in 1981, the brand new OSI was under tremendous political pressure to prove its worth. And it went forward with the Ivan the Terrible case, despite growing misgivings among some in the office.

One of the reasons for doubt: By 1981, the OSI had learned of a sworn deposition given to the KGB in 1949 by another Ukrainian, Ignat T. Danilchenko, who was captured by the Nazis and said he served with Demjanjuk not at Treblinka but at Sobibor, Flossenburg and a nearby camp called Regensburg. The government neither introduced the Danilchenko "protocol" at trial nor turned it over to the defense for six years.

Demjanjuk's story, which has shifted repeatedly over the years, though not as much as the government's, was that he was held in two POW camps after his capture and then sent by the Germans to fight his former army, the Soviets, with a band of other Ukrainians in Austria. Never, he has maintained, did he serve at a concentration or extermination camp.

U.S. District Judge Frank J. Battisti didn't believe him. He believed the survivors, who testified emotionally about the evils committed by Ivan the Terrible, the man they said sat before them. In 1981, the judge stripped Demjanjuk of his citizenship, and in 1986 he was deported--not to his home country of the USSR, which likely would have charged him with treason, but to Israel, which would try him for war crimes.

The trial was Israel's first against a Nazi since 1962, when an unrepentant Adolf Eichmann was found guilty and hanged for administering the Holocaust. With Demjanjuk, soft-spoken and ham-handed, described by prosecutors as the devil in disguise, the trial served not only as a Holocaust tutorial for a generation of Jews born after the war but also as a reminder of how many war criminals continued to live freely.

The Israeli tribunal found Demjanjuk guilty and in 1988 sentenced him to die as Eichmann died, at the end of a rope.

Even as Demjanjuk's trial was winding down, however, so too was the Soviet Union. And from a Ukrainian state archive emerged the depositions of 37 Treblinka guards captured by the Red Army at the end of the war. Every one of them identified another man, Ivan Marchenko, as Ivan the Terrible.

It soon became clear that Demjanjuk was almost certainly not Ivan the Terrible.

Israel's Supreme Court freed Demjanjuk in 1993. In its decision, the court said there was considerable evidence that Demjanjuk was indeed a Nazi collaborator who served at Majdanek, Flossenburg and Sobibor, but that since the allegations were that he was Ivan of Treblinka, he had not had a chance to defend himself on these other allegations.

Prison workers were building his gallows when the call came to set Demjanjuk free.

'Forced to Rely on Trial by Archive'

"The things we do in the name of righteousness . . . historically have led us down dangerous roads," said Michael Tigar, a well-known Washington defense attorney who is handling Demjanjuk's latest case, free of charge. "Someone needs to take a serious look at how these cases are being done. With the deaths of the live witnesses who can support or contradict their version of events, the government is increasingly forced to rely on trial by archive."

Indeed, the government's latest case is almost entirely archival, and most of its witnesses in the trial that ended in June were experts who testified as to the authenticity of the fragile documents--a key point of dispute by the defense.

Over the years, however, the archival case against Demjanjuk has grown, ever so slowly. At the same time, it has become increasingly apparent that wherever and however he spent the war, Demjanjuk has never told the whole truth about it.

In addition to the shrapnel scar on his back, Demjanjuk, who fought successfully to have his U.S. citizenship restored in 1998, has another notable scar, this one on the inside of his upper left arm. He created the scar himself, Demjanjuk acknowledges, when he gouged out a blood-type tattoo from the war. He said he received the tattoo while fighting with the German-sponsored Ukrainian unit in Austria.

There is little historical evidence those fighters were tattooed, however, while it is well documented that the SS tattooed the blood types of many POW conscripts on the upper left arm.

Demjanjuk, at one point, claimed to have been held at a POW camp in Chelm, Poland, even after it had been overrun by the Red Army.

And he has offered various explanations for why, on his visa application, he said he lived in Sobibor, Poland, from 1936 to 1943. Before it became a death camp, Sobibor was little more than a rail stop that didn't even appear on most maps, historians say.

Prosecutors contend there was only one explanation for why a former Ukrainian POW would come up with the name Sobibor, and that it is highly incriminating.

"It would be like someone asking you, 'Where were you on Nov. 22, 1963?' and you saying, 'Well, I happened to be in Dallas that day, at the book depository, with a rifle . . . [but] I'm not Lee Harvey Oswald," said one government official, who asked not to be identified.

While it has never been determined whether the signature on the Trawniki card belongs to Demjanjuk, he and his attorneys have offered various theories as to the card's authenticity.

With the Soviet Union under attack in the 1970s for its treatment of Jews, the KGB may have forged the Trawniki card to demonstrate its commitment to tracking down those involved in the Holocaust, Demjanjuk has suggested. In the most recent trial, the defense argued that the card was probably issued to Demjanjuk's cousin, also named Ivan Demjanjuk, who grew up in the same village, Dub Macharenzi, in central Ukraine.

The government, meanwhile, has collected evidence in addition to the Dienstausweis it says places him at two concentration camps, including a disciplinary report that turned up in a Lithuanian government archive. Filled out by an SS sergeant at the Majdanek concentration camp on Jan. 20, 1943, the report says Wachmann No. 1393, named "Deminjuk," and another guard were given 25 lashes for leaving their posts to buy onions and salt.

OSI investigators discovered two transfer rosters from Trawniki, both held in Russian archives, one listing "Iwan Demianiuk," the other "Iwan Demianjuk," both with ID No. 1393. They found a duty roster from the Flossenburg camp and a list of 117 Flossenburg guards in German archives and indicating the presence of guard No. 1393, "Demenjuk."

And in German records they uncovered an armory log from Flossenburg reporting the issuance of a rifle and bayonet to Wachmann "Demianiuk" on Oct. 8, 1943.

"There can be no question," prosecutors wrote in a trial brief, "that these seven documents refer to Defendant."

Thin and Frail Now, He Rarely Leaves Home

Once the burly stereotype of a Rust Belt auto worker, Demjanjuk is thin and frail now, according to the few who have have seen him in recent years. He seldom leaves the yellow-brick house on the quiet street where he lived before his first trial and to which he returned after being freed by Israel.

He was expected to testify during his trial but never appeared in court. His attorney, Tigar, declined to say why. The defense called only one witness, Demjanjuk's son, John Jr., who was 11 when reporters and photographers filled their front yard on Aug. 25, 1977, asking about Ivan the Terrible. Active in his father's defense since his teens, John Jr., now 35, testified for only a matter of minutes, saying that in all his conversations with his father, never had the elder Demjanjuk told him he had aided the Nazis.

And then the defense rested its case. Like that of the government, it is based almost entirely on old papers.

If Demjanjuk loses the denaturalization case, he would face a deportation trial. If he loses that, and is still alive, he could theoretically face another war crime trial in Israel.

Sandra Coliver, head of the Center for Justice and Accountability, a group that tracks latter-day war criminals, estimates that several hundred have entered the U.S. in the last 25 years. There's an accused Serbian torture expert and murderer living in Atlanta, she says, an ex-member and alleged executioner from former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's secret police in Miami.

"We certainly endorse the principle that responsibility is something you carry for life," Coliver said of the OSI's prosecution of Demjanjuk. "We also believe that there are hundreds of war criminals living in this country and wish they'd get the same attention as Demjanjuk."

During its 22 years, the OSI has helped extradite 54 people. Most were low-level concentration camp guards.

Only two were accused of serving at extermination camps whose sole purpose was to kill Jews: Fedorenko, executed by the Soviet Union in 1986, and Demjanjuk.

"We will pursue these individuals into old age, if necessary, to locations thousands of miles from the scenes of the crimes," said one Justice Department official. "You won't get away with it."