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 2½ 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. […]
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; […]
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
Source: ERIC SLATER, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times | July 14, 2001