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Cleveland Plain Dealer | 17Mar2012 | John Caniglia

Seven Hills' John Demjanjuk, convicted Nazi guard, dies in Bavaria at 91

John Demjanjuk died Saturday in Germany, ending nearly 35 years of legal battles with officials in three countries who claimed he was a Nazi death camp guard.

During those years, the former Seven Hills autoworker was imprisoned in the United States, sentenced to death in Israel -- until its highest court freed him -- and, last May, convicted in Germany for serving as an accessory in the deaths of more than 28,000 people at a death camp. He was sentenced to five years in prison but freed while he appealed the conviction.

Demjanjuk was 91. He had been living in a nursing home in the Bavarian town of Bad Feilnbach, according to published reports. He died nearly three years after being taken from his suburban home and flown overseas, a deportation ordered after U.S. judges ruled that he lied about his Nazi past when he entered the country in 1952 and that he was a guard at two concentration camps and a death camp in World War II.

The cause of death was unclear, though Demjanjuk's family has said he suffered incurable bone marrow disease. His family and friends have said he was weakened by the legal fight with the U.S. government to prove that he was not a Nazi guard.

"My father fell asleep with the Lord as a victim and survivor of Soviet and German brutality since childhood," Demjanjuk's son, John Jr., told the Associated Press. "He loved life, family and humanity. History will show Germany used him as a scapegoat to blame helpless Ukrainian POWS for the deeds of Nazi Germans."

Attempts to reach John Demjanjuk Jr. were unsuccessful Saturday.

Demjanjuk's family fought for weeks in 2009 to prevent the deportation to Germany, saying their father was too frail and ill to withstand another trial. They also hammered away at the case of German prosecutors, saying Demjanjuk never harmed anyone, let alone took part in the deaths of thousands of people.

His case fueled a bitter debate over suspected Nazi war criminals: Should men in the last years of their lives face deportation and war-crimes trials for something that happened more than 65 years ago in the midst of war?

"Demjanjuk shows the Justice Department's determination to do the right thing, no matter the passage of time, to bring Nazi war criminals to justice," Alan Rosenbaum, a Cleveland State University philosophy professor and author of the book, "Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals," said Saturday. "It's most fitting that he died in Europe, where he served the Nazi cause, and not in the United States. And hopefully, his body will not be returned to the United States, the country that brought down the Nazi regime."

Demjanjuk's family can have the body returned to the United States, but it is unclear whether that will take place.

Attorney Joseph McGinness, who over the last two decades has represented guards who patrolled the perimeter of concentration camps, said the government wasted its time and tax dollars in dealing with Demjanjuk and others.

"These were nobodies -- if in fact they were even there," McGinness said Saturday. "They weren't the people making the decisions in the camps. There was no reason to chase any of them. None of them had a rank above private. Everyone of these people was nothing. They were draftees."

Demjanjuk's family said the government forced a grandfather who lived for his family to seldom leave his home, only to drive to the grocery store, his doctor or church. His outlet was his garden.

The man who became a symbol of the Holocaust's collaborators to many was born Ivan Demjanjuk on April 3, 1920, in the village of Duboviye Makharyntsy in western Ukraine. His father, Mykola, was a disabled veteran who lost several fingers fighting during World War I. His mother, Ulyana, often was ill. He and his sister often had no shoes, and poverty prevented Demjanjuk from completing school.

In the early 1930s, the Soviets sought to destroy the Ukrainians for owning their own land. The Soviets, in effect, starved a nation known as Europe's bread basket.

As a teenager, Demjanjuk survived by working as a plowman and a tractor driver on a farm. He was later drafted into the Soviet Red Army and in 1941, he was wounded in combat as the Germans tried to take control of Kiev. An explosive sent shrapnel into his back. He was hospitalized for four months, released and sent back to the front lines, where he was captured by German soldiers in the Crimea in May 1942.

His activities and whereabouts from that time until he found his way to an American-operated displaced persons camp in 1945 became the focus of the trials he would face decades later.

Demjanjuk had said he was sent to a series of prisoner-of-war camps after his capture and did heavy labor. In 1944, he said, he was transferred to Graz, Austria, where he joined a group of Ukrainian soldiers who began fighting the Soviets, in collaboration with the Germans.

After the war, Demjanjuk found refuge in displaced persons camps. In 1945, while in the camp in Landshut, Germany, he met a Ukrainian named Vera. They married two years later and moved to nearby Regensburg, another displaced persons camp, where Demjanjuk worked as a truck driver for the U.S. Army.

The Demjanjuks said they determined that they could not go home to Ukraine because he would be considered a traitor for allowing the Nazis to recruit him into an anti-Communist fighting unit. Demjanjuk claimed he would face a court martial and execution if he returned to his homeland.

Fearing repatriation to his homeland, he has claimed that he lied on his U.S. visa application about his military service and wartime whereabouts. He also swore he never assisted in the persecution of any person because of race, religion or national origin.

Demjanjuk entered the United States on Feb. 9, 1952, saying he spent much of his war years in the town of Sobibor, Poland. He eventually settled in Seven Hills and worked as an assembly line mechanic at Ford Motor Co. in Brook Park.

On Nov. 14, 1958, he became a naturalized citizen and changed his name from Ivan to John.

From his arrival in Greater Cleveland, Demjanjuk was a model citizen. He was an active member of St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Church, first in Cleveland and then in Parma. He and his wife had three children, John, Lydia and Irene, and Demjanjuk often helped his children's friends repair their bicycles and cars.

In the mid-1950s, Vera Demjanjuk wrote to Demjanjuk's mother in Ukraine that her son had survived the war and emigrated to America, according to Plain Dealer stories. The older woman jubilantly reported Demjanjuk was alive.

After becoming aware of that, Soviet war-crimes investigators confiscated family records and photographs and branded Demjanjuk a traitor.

On Aug. 25, 1977, Demjanjuk's life changed.

He returned home from work that day to find photographers waiting in his driveway to snap pictures of the alleged Nazi-collaborator.

Using a Nazi identification card with Demjanjuk's name, birth date and parentage, the Justice Department asked a federal judge to revoke Demjanjuk's citizenship, charging that he lied on his application and entered the United States illegally.

The card was provided by Soviet officials who said that their soldiers recovered the card from the Trawniki training camp, where guards learned to perform mass executions during the war.

The Justice Department also found nearly a dozen survivors of the Nazi death camp at Treblinka. They identified Demjanjuk as "Ivan the Terrible," a Ukrainian guard who tortured Jewish inmates and operated the gas chambers that exterminated an estimated 900,000 people, mostly Jews, during the war. The Justice Department also charged that Demjanjuk killed Jews at the Sobibor death camp.

In 1981, a federal judge stripped Demjanjuk of his citizenship. Television and newspapers carried stories about witnesses weeping, spectators crying and Demjanjuk's wife, Vera, fainting. At the defense table, Demjanjuk seemed "expressionless, serene and disconnected," according to Plain Dealer stories.

A judge ordered his deportation based on his wartime past. He was imprisoned at a medical facility in Missouri for nearly a year before Israel agreed to charge him. In 1986, Demjanjuk became the second accused Nazi war criminal ever taken to Israel. The first was Adolf Eichmann.

A three-judge panel in Israel found Demjanjuk guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to death. He spent six years in a prison cell in Israel while his sentence was appealed. All the while, he maintained his innocence.

In 1991, his appeal was pending when the Soviet Union collapsed, a move that allowed his lawyers to produce testimony from witnesses who identified another man, Ivan Marchenko, as "Ivan the Terrible."

In 1993, Israel's Supreme Court overturned Demjanjuk's conviction, but it stressed that the Nazis had trained him to become a guard and that he had served at the Sobibor death camp. He was released from prison in September 1993 and returned to his family in Seven Hills.

In 1998, U.S. District Judge Paul Matia in Cleveland reinstated Demjanjuk's citizenship, but the judge left open the chance for the Justice Department to look at Demjanjuk's past at three concentration camps, Sobibor and Majdanek in Nazi-occupied Poland and Flossenburg near Bavaria.

A year later, the Office of Special Investigations, the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting unit, re-opened the case. In May 2000, OSI's director, Eli Rosenbaum, and prosecutors took their investigation to Matia, and during a two-week trial they offered seven documents that tied Demjanjuk to working at concentration and death camps.

In his decision in February 2002, Matia said Demjanjuk and other Nazi-trained guards led Jews off the trains at Sobibor, disrobed them and led them to the gas chambers. Demjanjuk appealed. His attorneys said the Seven Hills' man was the victim of a mistaken identity.

They claimed that Demjanjuk had a cousin, also named Ivan, who grew up in the same village. The defense said it was that Ivan who worked with the Nazis, not the Demjanjuk who came to Ohio.

Appeals judges scoffed, and Demjanjuk took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided in 2004 with Matia. An immigration judge ordered his deportation to Ukraine, Germany or Poland a year later. But his family feared that he would be tortured if he returned to his native Ukraine.

"The U.S. government has marked Demjanjuk with the blood scent of Ivan the Terrible," his attorney, John Broadley, said at a hearing over his deportation. "Now, they want to take Demjanjuk, covered in that blood scent, and throw him into a shark tank."

Despite the deportation order, none of the three countries appeared interested in taking Demjanjuk, and he remained in Seven Hills.

That was until July 2008, when German officials said they wanted Demjanjuk on charges of murdering Jews at Sobibor. Demjanjuk's family said Germany only took the case after caving to pressure from the Office of Special Investigation and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization.

In March 2009, German authorities filed an arrest warrant for Demjanjuk, accusing him of participating in the deaths at Sobibor.

Over the next several weeks, Demjanjuk's family sought to keep him in Seven Hills. His family said he suffered from several health problems. In two cases, appeals courts stopped the deportation so judges could review case law and Demjanjuk's law briefs.

On April 14, federal agents carried Demjanjuk out of his home in a wheelchair and prepared to put him on an airplane. He moaned in apparent pain. His family said it was caused by federal agents dropping him as they carried him inside his house.

He was headed for the airport and on to Germany. But within hours, he was home again, as the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati stopped the move because of health concerns. Later, the Justice Department offered video of Demjanjuk walking without help.

On May 11, just days after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case, federal agents showed up again at Demjanjuk's home. This time, no judges stepped in. An ambulance pulled into the family's garage, and he was gone.

Nearly four hours later, a Gulfstream jet roared off the tarmac at Burke Lakefront Airport, and his battle in America was over.

"My father will not live to fairly litigate the matter as has successfully been done before," Demjanjuk's son, John, said weeks after the deportation.

"They will now file sensational charges to make headlines that could never withstand a fair test of litigation," he said. "There will be no evidence of even one specific murder because he has never harmed anyone in his life."

Soon after his plane touched down in Munich, Demjanjuk was charged with being an accessory to more than 28,000 deaths at Sobibor. He was held in a jail hospital.

The German press called the case the last major Nazi war crimes trial, one that would capture the attention of the world. It began Nov. 30, 2009.

The trial produced little new evidence, and prosecutors in Germany relied on the evidence that OSI and federal prosecutors in Cleveland used years earlier. Demjanjuk's lawyers said he never served at Sobibor. They also attacked the key piece of evidence against him in his three-decade legal fight: the Nazi guard pass that Matia had ruled contained Demjanjuk's picture, birth date and family history.

His defense attorneys in Germany said it was a Soviet forgery, the same argument used since the late 1970s, said Guenther Maull, a defense attorney. Demjanjuk was convicted in May 2011 of the German charges after a trial that lasted more than 18 months. After his conviction, he lived in a German nursing home, a world away from his family in Northeast Ohio.

But his attorneys kept fighting. They claimed that federal prosecutors in the United States withheld a key FBI document that questioned the legitimacy of the guard pass. A federal judge in December ruled that the FBI document was based on speculation and mistaken beliefs. The attorneys appealed the decision to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of a Appeals.

"We had far, far more of this story to tell, and we were in the midst of trying to do that," said Dennis Terez, the federal public defender in Cleveland representing Demjanjuk in his final appeal in the United States. He said Saturday that he and other attorneys working the case "wanted nothing more, nothing less than to be sure the truth about Mr. Demjanjuk's life is known."

Federal prosecutors offered another side.

"This marks the end of a decades-long effort in multiple countries that ultimately established the truth about John Demjanjuk's Holocaust crimes," said U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach in Cleveland. "There is no judicial or natural outcome that can erase the acts of Nazi persecution."

Former Plain Dealer reporters Michele Lesie and Bill Sloat contributed to this story. Plain Dealer archives also were used.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: [email protected], 216-999-4097