Toronto Sun | 11Dec2008 | Peter Worthington

Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible, but he's on trial again

The war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk in Munich has been postponed until Dec. 21, 2009 because the 89-year-old retired Ohio auto worker has an infection to go along with bone marrow disease and a bad heart.

As one of the lowest ranking war criminal suspects, the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk is on trial for complicity in the murder of 27,900 Jews at Sobibor death camp in 1942, where it is alleged he was a guard.

While the outcome of the trial is uncertain, the Demjanjuk case is replete with irony and, in its way, is testimony to the integrity of the Israeli justice system.

I've periodically written about Demjanjuk for 25 years, and was upset when he was deported to Israel where he was put on trial in 1988 as the sadistic guard, "Ivan the Terrible," at Treblinka death camp. Demjanjuk was sentenced to be hanged.

Upsetting was evidence that Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible -- that witnesses were wrong, and that one Ivan Marchenko was the Treblinka guard, and he had died in Trieste.

[W.Z. Even more upsetting was that the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) in the U.S. knew that Mr. Demjanjuk was not "Ivan the Terrible" but withheld this exculpatory evidence from the defense during his denaturalization trial in 1981.]

To its everlasting credit, the Israeli Supreme Court reversed the conviction and freed Demjanjuk, acknowledging his was a case of mistaken identity.

It took considerable courage and integrity (the two are not always synonymous) for the Supreme Court to rule as it did. There was considerable outrage when Demjanjuk was returned to the U.S., his citizenship restored. Some felt that if not at Treblinka, Demjanjuk had been a guard somewhere else and deserved execution.


For his part, Demjanjuk insisted he was conscripted in the Red Army, was taken prisoner by the Germans, and joined the so-called Vlasov army of Red Army PoWs who joined the war against Stalin.

Andre Vlasov was one of Stalin's better generals who defended Moscow. When captured by the Germans he changed sides but refused to fight against the allies -- only against Stalin. After the war, most who joined Vlasov's army were executed.

Anyway, Demjanjuk became a guard at Sobibor.

[W.Z. Mr. Demjanjuk has steadfastly maintained that he was never in Sobibor.]

Until postponed, Demjanjuk's court appearances in Munich were marked by him apparently being too sick to participate. He was variously wheeled into court on a stretcher, in a wheelchair, in a hospital bed, wrapped in blankets. Some think he's faking, but clearly he's been sick a long time.

The case may be awkward. Demjanjuk's lawyers point out that in the 1970s a German court found the commander of guards at Treblinka not guilty of war crimes, so how can an underling like Demjanjuk be guilty?

Also there are no living witnesses to testify. Photos are unreliable, as are eye-witnesses who once identified Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible -- giving rise to the view that all aging Ukrainians look alike.

To some, prosecution has become persecution.

Mistaking Demjanjuk's identity and convicting him as Ivan the Terrible has haunted and embarrassed Israel -- which has largely stayed out of the present controversy.

It was the U.S. Office of Special Investigations that revoked Demjanjuk's restored citizenship and deported him to Germany to stand trial. Demjanjuk's family claims he is terminally ill, but the process grinds on, with no one feeling either triumphant or vindicated.

Demjanujk may be the last of this type of war crime trial. There are few survivors left from the Nazi era, either as witnesses or as accused.