“Ivan the Terrible” trial: now it’s Germany’s turn

Ivan Demjanjuk, accused of being involved in the murder of some 29,000 Jews in a Nazi death camp during the Second World War, has been deported from the US to Germany. But was it really him who was behind the crimes?

He will stand trial in Munich, though his friends and family say he’s too ill to appear in court.

Demjanjuk has always maintained his innocence. The 89-year-old says he was a Red Army soldier and a prisoner of war. He insists he was drafted into the Red Army in 1941 and a year later became a prisoner of war in German camps until 1944. But papers dating back to WW2 suggest otherwise.

“This is not Demjanjuk at all”

With a passion for digging out the truth, Alex Goltseker, a documentary producer, has spent the past few years making a film about Demjanjuk. But a decade and a half after an Israeli court acquitted him, Alex is still trying to find out who this man really is. And the news that he has now been extradited to Germany doesn’t bring him any closer to the truth.

“I believe this man is not Demjanjuk at all, but he has his reasons for disguising himself as Demjanjuk,” Goltseker says.

“He has something to hide. He doesn’t have the same dialect as people in the area Demjanjuk came from. There are many missing facts that make you think – who is this man?”

John Demjanjuk is transported from the airport in Munich to the Stadelheim prison (AFP Photo DDP / Lennart Preiss Germany out)
And that’s exactly what the Israelis have been asking ever since the late 1970s, when the US Justice Department accused the American citizen of being the Nazi guard known as ‘Ivan the Terrible’.

Court “admits mistake”

The Americans revoked his citizenship and extradited him to Israel. In 1988 he was convicted there and sentenced to death. But the court proceedings took a surprise twist.

The courts ruled that Demjanjuk was personally responsible for sending some 29,000 Jews to the gas chambers. But five years later, Israel’s Supreme Court reviewed the case and acquitted him because of a lack of evidence.

“What happened in Israel in the early 1990s is that they did not investigate the case enough,” Goltseker says.

“If they knew they were getting ‘Ivan the Terrible’ they should have made sure he was ‘Ivan the Terrible’. Once it couldn’t be proven beyond all doubt that he was, he couldn’t be tried for something else because the US had sent him only to be tried as ‘Ivan the Terrible’.”

Israeli authorities were left with no choice but to set him free.

Natan Lerner, Professor of International Law, agreed: “they couldn’t prove that he was ‘Ivan the Terrible’ so they had to send him back to the US,” he said.

“In the US they discovered that he made a false declaration when he applied for citizenship. They annulled his citizenship. Then Germany decided to request the extradition of Demjanjuk on the basis of the accusation that he is a criminal of war who committed atrocities – not precisely in the same concentration camp, but in another”.

“Justice has no expiry date”

Reproduction of an identity card for John Demjanjuk, then known as Ivan, from the year 1948 (AFP Photo DDP / Patrick Sinkel Germany out)
Most Israelis are still angry that the courts were unable to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Demjanjuk was the man who eyewitnesses say sliced off the breasts of women inmates with bayonets and once ordered a prisoner to rape a 12-year-old girl.

But for some, justice is important no matter how late it is in coming.

“We see great importance in this trial anyway and certainly for future generations, there is a moral worth and educational value in bringing Nazi criminals to justice,” said Haim Gertner, Yad Vashem’s archive director.

It’s not clear what new evidence – if any – German prosecutors will bring to the table. But they believe they can do something the Israeli courts couldn’t – charge John Demjanjuk with crimes against humanity.

Nazi henchman betrayed by his own documents

Some researchers are sure that “Ivan the Terrible” and Ivan Demjanjuk are the same person.

Despite his previous trial, new evidence against Demjanjuk has emerged claiming to prove that the alleged WW2 criminal was working for the Nazis during the Second World War.

A year ago authentic German papers from 1943 with a photo of Demjanjuk were discovered. These documents confirm his serving in the SS unit at the Sobibor concentration camp, said researcher of Nazism Aleksandr Sosnovsky to Radio Liberty.

As such these papers are proof that Demjanjuk participated in one way or another in the murdering of some 29,000 people at Sobibor at the time.

John Demjanjuk, September 22, 1993 (AFP Photo / Menahem Kahana)
German interrogators also state that they have found a witness who is ‘100% certain’ that Demjanjuk was the dreadful jailer “Ivan the Terrible.”

Demjanjuk himself insists that he was a Soviet POW who, starting from 1942, was trying to survive in a concentration camp.

Observers note that German authorities have chosen to take the risk of putting the aged 89-year-old on trial and are preparing to conduct the very last process against the former Nazi criminal on German soil. Their task is to remind once again to German citizens that Holocaust was created by man and that it could have been avoided.

Aleksandr Sosnovsky told Radio Liberty that Demjanjuk was among those whom Nazis charged with picking out Jews from the body of prisoners. Sosnovsky noted that, unfortunately, it was former Soviet citizens that often did the dirtiest butchering of prisoners.

Despite the fact that Ivan Demjanjuk currently sits at the top of the most-wanted Nazi criminals published by Simon Wiesenthal Center, he could still be released from custody for health reasons, if proved before the trial formally begins.