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Kyiv Post | 15Jul2012 | Andriy Semotiuk

The Demjanjuk odyssey as viewed in the rear-view mirror

In his book “The Demjanjuk Debacle: The Trials of a ‘Nazi’ Who Wasn’t,” author Myron Kuropas recounts the torturous route that John Demjanjuk traveled in his life.

 Kuropos was a special assistant for ethnic affairs to President Gerald R. Ford, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, was a former adjunct professor at Northern Illinois University and has authored several books on Ukrainians in America.

Demjanjuk died March 17, 2012 in Germany at age 91 after being convicted of Nazi war crimes, specifically by a German court on 12 May 2011 on 28,060 counts of being an accessory to murder at the Sobibor death camp in occupied Poland.

 As the first historical account of the 30-year history of the Demjanjuk case, the author provides the reader with a thorough review of the salient events that evoked such bitter debate and friction between the various parties entangled by the legal struggle and what it symbolized.

As the book lays out, beginning in his native Ukraine under Soviet rule, Demjanjuk lived through the Holodomor, through recruitment into the Red Army and combat duty against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers on the Eastern Front of World War II.  He was captured by the Nazis, and became a prisoner of war. The author indicates that, according to allegations made by the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) of the U.S. Department of Justice, Demjanjuk was a trainee in Trawniki and a guard in the Nazi Sobibor death camp. The author disputes these allegations, contending instead that Demjanjuk was an internee in Nazi Germany's genocidal concentration camps for Soviet POWs, later joining former Red Army general Andrey Vlasov’s army to fight and overthrow the brutal Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. The author then outlines how Demjanjuk immigrated to the United States in 1952. 

Demjanjuk lived peacefully in Cleveland until early 1981. It was then, according to the author’s book, that Demjanjuk was imprisoned in the U.S., denaturalized and ultimately deported to Israel where Demjanjuk faced a trial for being Ivan the Terrible, a sadistic guard at the Treblinka concentration camp.

At his trial in Israel, according to the book, Jewish Holocaust survivors falsely accused Demjanjuk of being Ivan the Terrible. He was convicted and then endured imprisonment while his appeals were heard. Ultimately Demjanjuk was victorious in the Israeli Supreme Court after substantial new evidence of his innocence was uncovered by his defense team and presented to the court. 

Demjanjuk then returned to the United States where his U.S. citizenship was restored, only then to face a second deportation proceeding initiated by OSI to remove him to Germany. The author outlines how in Munich a trial convicting him of being an accessory to the murder of more than 20,000 Jews at Sobibor found him guilty. Then Demjanjuk appealed to the German court of appeal. This is where the author’s account concludes. However, we know that shortly afterwards, Demjanjuk died. 

If nothing else, the Demjanjuk case as set out in this book is an incredible collection of contradictions. While Israel acquitted Demjanjuk, Germany convicted him. Real Nazis were amnestied by modern Germany, but non-Nazis like Demjanjuk were not. According to a finding of a U.S. Appeals Court, the OSI concealed evidence of Demjanjuk’s innocence, yet the OSI twice prosecuted him for concealing his past. Soviet evidence was condemned by the defense as unreliable, but it was Soviet evidence that saved Demjanjuk’s life in Israel. Demjanjuk “was a German prisoner being tried by the very people who captured, confined and made him do whatever they were now accusing him of having done.”  Since Germany could not prove that Demjanjuk murdered anyone, they convicted him of a newly invented criminal offence, that of being an accessory to the murder of over 20,000 victims, on the theory that his mere presence in the death camp was sufficient to hold him guilty despite the fact that other guards from this camp were not held guilty by German courts previously. These contradictions alone made this case extraordinary.

As a lawyer, several factors troubled me about Demjanjuk’s case. The author mentions some of my previously published legal comments in his book. Foremost among these was the politicization of the law that it entailed. To draw an analogy, what debasing the money supply of a society does to its financial health, politicization of the legal system does to its legal health. The Kuropas’ book concurs with my previous argument that normal legal rules could have adequately dealt with Demjanjuk, and agrees that the result would not have been his conviction. As the book so aptly demonstrates, this was not something those who sought Demjanjuk’s guilt could tolerate. 

Take the issue of screening immigrants to the United States at the end of World War II as an example of how the legal system faltered in the Demjanjuk case. The author points out that every immigrant had to go through 1) an FBI, 2) Counter-Intelligence Corps, 3) CIA, 4) Provost-Marshall General, 5) American fingerprinting record, 6) Berlin Document Center, 7) Immigration and Naturalization immigration inspector, 8) U.S. Consular and 9) special investigation of displaced Soviet citizen clearance before they could immigrate to the United States.

It is true that Demjanjuk admitted concealing his war record. However, the reason why he did so was, according to him, that he was avoiding deportation back to the Soviet Union under Operation Keelhaul where persons who came from within Soviet borders were forcibly repatriated there. His accusers argued that he did so because he was an accessory to the murder of 28,000 Jews. 

The question is, even if it might have missed a detail such as whether an applicant came from eastern or western Ukraine and was therefore subject to Soviet repatriation, how could such a thorough system of review miss someone so significant who evidently helped murder 28,000 Jews? The book suggests that the answer is that Demjanjuk was not as significant and inhumane a person as the prosecutors made him out to be.

The strongest evidence against Demjanjuk was the already-mentioned Trawniki identity card that was produced by the Soviet Union. The author sets out the objections to that card raised by Fabian J. Tasson, a forensic document examiner for the State of Illinois, who testified in court in that regard. They were:

1.  That the card was more like a paper held in a personnel file than a typical ID card carried by someone at the time.

2.  That it had staple holes in it that suggested it came from somewhere else.

3.  The seals on the picture and on the card were misaligned.

4.  That the name patch on the uniform was whited out concealing the name.

5.  That the presence of various colors of ink on the card cast doubts on its authenticity.

6.  There were discrepancies as to Demjanjuk’s height and eye color.

The author also refers to the view of Lubomyr Prytulak, someone who is not a forensic authority, but whose exhaustive analysis of the card also concludes that the most plausible hypothesis was that the card was tampered with. That analysis can be found at www.xoxol.org  and is worthy of review by anyone who claims the card is authentic.

There were, however, other pieces of evidence pointing to guilt. 

The author mentions a statement taken by the Soviet KGB secret police from Ignat Danilchenko, a former Sobibor guard implicating Demjanjuk. Later, however, Danilchenko claimed that he was coerced by the Soviet secret police into making the statement and in 1985 indicated that all the guards in Sobibor were Germans. This fails to explain, however, how he himself was a guard there.

The book also says there were German transfer papers that indicated Demjanjuk was sent to Sobibor. These, according to the author, were provided by Soviet sources and could be accused of falsification for that reason. In addition it should be noted that, Charles Sydnor, a prosecution expert in the U.S. deportation proceeding, indicated that if the Trawniki card was invalid, none of these papers would be valid -- which simply brings the question back to the legitimacy of the ID card. Similarly, the author mentions the appearance of another John Demjanjuk. 

Both Demjanjuks were evidently from the same village. The author indicates that the second Demjanjuk committed suicide shortly after he learned that the Soviet secret police had come to the village asking questions about him. Was he the real camp guard? Didn’t his existence at least raise a reasonable doubt regarding the conviction?  There were also witnesses called who claimed to have seen Demjanjuk in the camps, but who could not recognize him in court. 

Through this book the author makes us realize that in many ways Demjanjuk’s life experience was a metaphor for the experience of many Ukrainians over the last century. All the major hardships faced by Ukrainians in the last century, and especially during the Second World War, are found in the book’s historical narrative.

The book admirably demonstrates the propaganda war that played out against the backdrop of the legal proceedings that engulfed Demjanjuk. This propaganda war was waged all the way from pro-Soviet Ukrainian Daily News editor Michael Hanusiak’s 1975 list of 70 alleged Nazi collaborators living in the United States, which included Demjanjuk, to the final days of Demjanjuk’s life in Germany almost 30 years later. In that context, traditional Jewish anti-Ukrainian grievances once again surfaced in the newspapers and media of the world. 

The book singles out the following: 

1.  Bohdan Khmelnitsky’s slaughter of Jews in Poland in the 17th century. As the author says, however, no explanation was provided that the Jews perished as part of Khmelnitsky’s Orthodox Cossack revolt against Polish feudal rule in western Ukraine. No mention is made that the Jewish population had sided with the Polish nobility and Catholic leaders in suppressing Ukrainian serfs. According to Zenon Kohut, the director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, some 20,000 Jews perished in the conflict because of the role they played in Polish society.[2]

2.  Symon Petliura’s role in the pogroms visited upon the Jews during the period of Ukraine’s rebirth in 1917-1922 and the Paris trial of his Jewish assassin, Sholom Schwartzbard, who was found innocent. The author mentions the case but fails to indicate that the trial was unable to link Petliura directly to even one of the pogroms. More importantly, no reference is made to the close work between Symon Petliura and Zeev (formerly Vladimir) Jabotinsky, one of the leading Jews of the 20th century and father of Revisionist Zionism. Jabotinsky categorically rejected any claim of Petliura’s animosity towards the Jews including conducting any pogroms or holding any anti-Semitic views.[3]

3.  The Jewish pogrom in Lviv on the entry of Nazi forces into that city in June 1941. The author hints at the estimated 4,000 Jews that died in three days of violence.[4]  However, he indicates that little mention is made of the 9,800 prisoners (my figure, not the author’s), mostly Ukrainians but including Poles and Zionist Jews, who perished in the jails at the hands of the NKVD Soviet secret police before they abandoned Western Ukraine in the face of the Nazi invasion.[5]  Also, as the author adds, the grievances are silent about the role Jews played earlier, in September 1939 in welcoming the Soviet invasion of western Ukraine, and Jewish help in pointing out Ukrainian leaders to the NKVD Soviet secret police who then imprisoned those Ukrainians.[6]

It is clear that John Demjanjuk’s case will now become the latest in this series of Jewish-Ukrainian differences.

In some places the author’s book shines a searchlight into some dark corners of history adding useful information that many of us were not completely aware of. For example, he writes:

There were some 13 million Nazis who could have been tried for war crimes but only 3.5 million were actually charged. Of this number, 2.5 million were granted amnesty, approximately 9,600 were eventually imprisoned, but only 300 were still in jail by 1949. Some 850,000 received heavy fines, suffered property confiscation and were restricted in their employment opportunities. 

A few pages later, talking about Operation Keelhaul, the author reminds us of the post-World War II fate of returnees to the Soviet Union (like Demjanjuk could have been). He writes:

Nevertheless, by November 1945, Western commands had repatriated 2,272,000 refugees to the Soviet Union. The fate of those sent back, voluntarily or by compulsion, was sealed. The overwhelming majority (of those repatriated) were accused of treason. They were not tried individually. Special three-man boards (troikas) handed down group sentences. Twenty percent were given death sentences or 25 years in the labor camps; 10 percent were exiled to remote parts of Siberia for periods of no less than six years; 15 percent were assigned to forced labor detachments, rebuilding areas destroyed by the war; and only 15-20 percent were allowed to return to their homes. Of the 15-20 percent remaining, some were undoubtedly killed or died in passage; a few escaped.

Such passages, and his recounting of the reactions of Ukrainians, Jews, Israelis, the O.S.I and others to the major events as they unfolded, provide valuable insights into the process as it developed.
The book left some key questions open. For example, why did Germany undertake this trial? Was it, as the author suggests, to spread some of the war guilt to other nations and to appease the Jews? Or were there other reasons?

I believe more attention needs to be focused here. A Freedom of Information Act request needs to unlock all the details. Why was Ukraine so passive while its image was being raked through the coals? Where was Ukraine’s leadership? Is this the end, or should more effort be exerted to get possession of the Trawniki card and transfer papers so they can be more thoroughly examined? These are just some of the questions still to be addressed. 

Nonetheless, the author’s book is the first detailed account of the history of the John Demjanjuk case, albeit that it is incomplete. It is unfortunate that the book came out before Demjanjuk’s death and before his appeal to the German court of appeal was heard. The news media and Demjanjuk’s foes have trumpeted Demjanjuk’s “guilt” based on the conviction of the Munich trial court. Shortly following Demjanjuk’s death, however, in March 2012 Margaret Noetzel, a spokeswoman for that court stated that under German law, Demjanjuk is “still technically presumed innocent,” because he died before his final appeal could be heard, and “a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty” according to German law. She gave no explanation for the long delay between the trial court’s decision and the hearing of the appeal.[7]

However, it is a fundamental axiom of the criminal law of all civilized nations that the presumption of innocence is never just a technicality. As Presiding Judge Ralph Alt himself conceded, “I say he’s guilty, but it’s not a final verdict.’’  Furthermore, there is good reason why he took this view since under German law, as was mentioned, a conviction does not stand until all appeal remedies are exhausted. As pointed out by Lawrence Douglas in a Harper’s Magazine article in 2009, "Compared with American court proceedings, a German criminal trial is extremely informal. There is no written transcript. Evidentiary rules are minimal. Hearsay is admissible, and so is a history of past convictions."[8]  Further, given the prominence of the case, one has to wonder why there was the delay of the appeal. The answer is that John Demjanjuk's death helped Germany avoid the potential political embarrassment and controversy of another higher court acquittal, as in Israel, and prevented a clear and public defeat of the novel and dubious theory of law under which Demjanjuk had been prosecuted.

Demjanjuk’s life has ended, but his legacy continues. If we study history to learn from it and to help improve our lives in the future, then there is a wealth of insights for everyone to be gained from reading this book and the history it presents. We owe a debt of gratitude to the author for his efforts in this regard.

[1]  This is the way Attorney Askold Lozynskyj, a frequent commentator on this case so aptly put it in an article he circulated recently.

[2] Kohut, Zenon E. (2003), "The Khmelnytsky Uprising, the image of Jews, and the shaping of Ukrainian historical memory", Jewish History 17 (2): 141–163 . According to another leading historian, Orest Subtelny, "Between 1648 and 1656, tens of thousands of Jews -- given the lack of reliable data, it is impossible to establish more accurate figures -- were killed by the rebels, and to this day the Khmelnytsky uprising is considered by Jews to be one of the most traumatic events in their history.” Orest Subtelny, Ukraine: A History, 1988, pp. 127-12.

[3] Hunczak, Taras, Symon Petliura and the Jews, A Reappraisal, Ukrainian Historical Society, Rutgers University, New York, p 42.

[4] Yones, Eliyahu. Smoke in the Sand - The Jews of Lvov in the War Years (1939-1944). Jerusalem: Gefen House, 2004. Print. P 81.

[5] Snyder, Timothy, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Basic Books, 2010. P 194. For the composition of prisoners see:

Jachnenko, Natalia, From the Office to Brigitky: Some Reflections from the years of 1939-1941 in Lviv. Author’s Publication, Munich 1986. Lviv: Historical Essays, Ivan Krypiakevych Institute of Ukrainian Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, 1996. Ukrainian Language. P 460-469.

[6] There are others as well. For example, an additional grievance not mentioned in the book but quite often cited are the pogroms that took place under Tsarist rule on Western Ukrainian lands. The facts that Jews found refuge there when they were expelled by European nations during the Inquisition and later, and that the Jews were forbidden to settle further east by Tsarist Russia, and for the most part the pogroms were initiated by ultranationalist Russians and not by subjugated Ukrainians, were seldom mentioned.

See: Subtelny, Ibid, P 277. Findberg, Leonid and Lubchenko, Volodymyr, Outline from the History and Culture of Jews in Ukraine, Part of a joint Ukrainian-Holland project with the Ann Frank Museum. Kyiv, 2005. Print. Ukrainian Langauge. Pp 60-65. Shestopal, Matvij, Jews in Ukraine. Oriyany, 1999. Pp 86-87, 118-119.

[7] Haaretz, Israeli Newspaper, Monday, April 30th, 2012.

[7a] Former US citizen convicted in Nazi camp deaths. Demjanjuk, 91, receives 5-year prison sentence May 13, 2011 by David Rising, Associated Press,


[8] Ivan the Recumbent or Demjanjuk in Munich, Harper’s Magazine article, Lawrence Douglas, November 30th, 2009.

Andriy J. Semotiuk is an attorney practicing in the area of international law focusing on immigration. He is a member of the bars of New York and California in the United States and Ontario and British Columbia in Canada. A former United Nations correspondent who was stationed in New York, Semotiuk now practices law and resides in Toronto.