The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

John Demjanjuk

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From: aa824@cleveland.Freenet.Edu (Mark Ira Kaufman)
Newsgroups: soc.culture.jewish
Subject: Re: Demjanjuk Anniversary
Date: 24 Sep 1995 05:55:00 GMT (Will Zuzak) writes...


Two years ago today, 22 September 1993, John Demjanjuk was finally released from an Israeli jail and allowed to return home to Cleveland, Ohio after an 18 year ordeal.

Sadly, the OSI personnel of the U.S. Department of Justice, who conspired to have an innocent man hanged for crimes that he did not commit, have still not been brought to justice.

Three years ago yellow ribbons hung from houses throughout Seven Hills, Ohio. The Cleveland suburb was awaiting the return of John Demjanjuk following his acquittal in Israel. Seven Hills had been his home since 1958, the same year he changed his name from Ivan to John.

The Cleveland media reported on Demjanjuk's identification in 1977, his denaturalization and extradition, the Israeli trial and conviction, and his successful appeal, as the saga of a Ukrainian immigrant mistaken for a Nazi criminal known as 'Ivan the Terrible.' Mike Conway, then a reporter for WJW- TV in Cleveland, began covering the story more than eleven years ago. On Demjanjuk's return to Cleveland, the family gave Conway the exclusive right to broadcast images of Demjanjuk back in the bosom of his loving family. The video, shot in Demjanjuk's living room, showed a smiling John Demjanjuk playing with a grandchild born during the trial in Israel. Conway began the report by playing Tony Orlando's recording of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree."

Ohio Congressman James Trafficant has been a vigorous Demjanjuk supporter since the start of the trial in Israel. After Demjanjuk was convicted of crimes against humanity, Trafficant the defense in obtaining previously un- released documents from the Justice Department. The documents proved crucial to Demjanjuk's appeal.

When Demjanjuk was acquitted in 1992, Trafficant proposed a bill calling for the federal government to provide financial compensation for Demjanjuk's pain and suffering." The motion was never seconded.

Trafficant continues to insist Demjanjuk was never a camp guard and should have his American citizenship restored Trafficant conceded he has never examined the evidence or read the trial transcripts.

Demjanjuk's image as a victim of injustice was further enhanced by a 1993 ruling from the U. S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court declared that during Demjanjuk's extradition the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations improperly concealed the documents obtained by Trafficant. Some of the OSI documents suggested another Ukrainian was known as 'Ivan the Terrible' at the Treblinka death camp in Poland.

Demjanjuk insists he was in a POW camp in Chelm, Poland for the duration of the war. It was later shown that the camp did not exist at the Demjanjuk claims to have been there. Although Demjanjuk had changed his alibi numerous times, the Chelm story is the one he used most often. It was the one that he settled on during the closing arguments of his trial. To this day, it remains his claim.

Today most Clevelanders believe Demjanjuk is innocent. Others, who concede he probably worked for the SS in the death camps, insist the matter should be dropped because Demjanjuk is an old man and his crime took place more than half a century ago.

Members of Cleveland's Jewish community see it differently. They are per- plexed by people who believe in Demjanjuk's innocence, and angered by those indifferent to his past.

A small number of Holocaust survivors and their supporters demonstrate in front of Demjanjuk's home whenever the Demjanjuk case makes news. They carry signs reading "We Know the Truth" and "6,000,000 Witnesses Call for Justice!" They chant "Nazis out of America," or "Nazis back to the Ukraine." The chants are not loud. They mostly march in silence.

On one occasion Demjanjuk's next-door neighbor had a brief exchange with a middle-aged demonstrator. The neighbor watched the marchers while sweeping his garage. As they went past his house, he waved his fist and told them Jews deserve whatever they get because of what they did to Jesus. The demonstrator erupted. "Because you think some Jews killed your God, its okay to murder thousands of Jewish children twenty centuries later? So that's why Jews should die?" A Holocaust survivor quieted his fellow demonstrator, and told him not to have any exchanges with the neighbor, "no matter what that mamzer shouts at you."

When asked why Jews demonstrate in a neighborhood where the perception of Demjanjuk as an innocent man seems unshakable and nearly unanimous, the middle- aged demonstrator said he had six million reasons for being there. When asked about the questionable behavior by the OSI. and the acquittal in Israel, he replied, "Do you think we don't know what we're doing? Or do you believe we're knowingly hounding an innocent man? The Cleveland Plain Dealer published a commentary titled "It's Time to Close the Book on the Demjanjuk Case." Can you imagine a newspaperman telling his readers to stop seeking the truth? We're out here to demand the book on Demjanjuk be kept open, that the public see Demjanjuk's past for what it is. We aren't here for revenge. We aren't calling for the executioner. We don't want his head on a platter. We want him to know we know what he did. We want everyone else to see the truth about Mr. John Demjanjuk. Then we want him deported. He has no right to enjoy the privilege of living in America. He never did."

Contributing to his innocent image are his repeated claims of mistaken identity, the reversal of his Israeli conviction, a ruling against the O.S.I., and skillful public relations by Demjanjuk's principle spokesperson, son-in- law Ed Nishnic.

Nishnic has been tireless and unrelenting in his father-in-law's defense. He has rarely stumbled in his role as choreographer of Demjanjuk's public image. And his damage control skills withstood the test when Demjanjuk's cause received public support from the Ku Klux Klan and the Institute for Historical Review, the anti-Semitic organization created to disseminate the claim that the Holocaust never happened.

At one point, groups claiming that the Holocaust never happened offered their support to Demjanjuk. Nishnic distanced his father-in-law from their support while denouncing Holocaust deniers.

Nishnic's campaign to keep his Demjanjuk's image from being associated with Holocaust revisionists nearly met with disaster when Demjanjuk's principal financial backer began to emerge from the background.

Jerome Brentar is a wealthy Cleveland travel agent who has transferred an estimated three million dollars to Demjanjuk. Much of this money, to cover legal fees and travel expenses, came out of Brentar's own pockets.

Brentar has never doubted Demjanjuk's innocence. But Brentar's reason for believing in Demjanjuk is different than Nishnic's.

Jerome Brentar is a Holocaust denier.

Brentar has addressed conferences of the Institute for Historical Review. In his talks before the I.H.R., Brentar insisted that Demjanjuk was innocent because the crimes he was charged with are a fabrication created by the Jews.

Jerome Brentar was born in Croatia and raised in Cleveland. In the early post-war years Brentar, who could speak fluent German, returned to Europe. There he screened thousands of refugees as an employee of the International Refugee Organization. Between 1948 and 1950, Brentar and the late Dr. Edward O'Connor, an official with the Catholic Relief Services, worked together to secretly smuggle Nazis into the United States. In an interview published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Brentar admitted helping hundreds of Nazis defraud their way into the United States. "Whether he was in the Waffen SS or the Wehrmacht...I would permit them to be considered..."

Nishnic told the Cleveland Free Times, "It's obviously an attempt to dis- credit Mr. Demjanjuk by attacking those around him. I don't think any serious person accepts that Jerry Brentar is a Nazi sympathizer. In all the years I've known him, he has never tried to push Holocaust denial on me....I find it sadly humorous that people are making Mr. Brentar seem like a Nazi-smuggler."

Edward O'Connor's son Mark would later become Demjanjuk's defense attorney.

Brentar's pro-Nazi sympathies did not become public until Demjanjuk was already on trial in Israel. But news coverage of the case focused on the trial and Brentar's past stayed in the background.

In 1994 Brentar unsuccessfully ran for congress. The one and only issue he discussed during the campaign was the Demjanjuk case. Brentar claims he is no longer wealthy, and has stopped financing Demjanjuk's campaign.

The early adulthood of Ivan Demjanjuk is a far cry from the John Demjanjuk myth, that of an old man thrust into a whirlpool of false accusations and legal procedures unfettered by authentic innocence. One thing is certain. Demjanjuk worked for the SS as a guard in at least one death camp, and probably more than one. This was acknowledged by Demjanjuk's attorneys who, in a defensive move, established his Nazi past during the trial itself.

Demjanjuk's Israeli attorney, Yoram Sheftel, introduced testimony by Ignat Danielchenko. Danielchenko was a guard at the Sobibor death camp. (Unlike Auschwitz, which was both a slave labor camp and an extermination factory, Sobibor and Treblinka were designed and operated exclusively to exterminate large numbers of people in the shortest possible time.) Danielchenko stated, "I saw Mr. Demjanjuk escorting prisoners in all phases, from the unloading of the trains to the entrance to the gas chamber."

While such testimony would seem to put Demjanjuk in harm's way, its purpose was to protect him. Sheftel's goal was to place Demjanjuk somewhere other than Treblinka during the time in question. Demjanjuk was charged with having committed crimes against humanity as a death camp guard known as 'Ivan the Terrible' of Treblinka. He could only be tried for crimes committed under this identity. A principle of law known as the doctrine of speciality prevents Israel from trying Demjanjuk for any crime other than the specific crime for which he was extradited. For this reason, proving Demjanjuk participated in the murder of civilians at Sobibor during the time in question did not hurt his case. Sheftel, sensing this strategy had potential drawbacks, abandoned the Sobibor alibi during his closing arguments. He instead reverted to the original alibi of having been a POW at Chelm.

On February 18, 1988 John Demjanjuk was found guilty of crimes against humanity, Israel's only capital offense. Two months later he was sentenced to hang. By this time stories of another 'Ivan' had begun to circulate. During the appeal, Sheftel introduced depositions taken in the 1950's and 1960's by KGB interrogators from 38 former Ukrainians who worked at Treblinka. They named another Ukrainian, Ivan Marchenko, as a guard whom Jewish prisoners called 'Ivan the Terrible.'

According to Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, the KGB evidence naming Marchenko as 'Ivan the Terrible' does not clear Demjanjuk. "Ivan is the most common Ukrainian name. Any Ivan who was a guard at a killing camp would obviously be called 'Ivan the Terrible.' And the Israelis had come up with some evidence that there was more than one 'Ivan the Terrible' at Treblinka."

Demjanjuk's appeal was heard by members of Israel's Supreme Court. In September of 1992, the justices determined that the depositions created some doubt that Demjanjuk was the one and only 'Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka' as defined in the original indictment. Although the court acquitted Demjanjuk, it did not declare him innocent. The acquittal stated that his Nazi service at Sobibor, Trawniki, Flossenberg and Regensberg. The court also reaffirmed its contention that based on the evidence and eyewitness testimony, Demjanjuk had served at Treblinka. Dershowitz noted, "Even if he wasn't 'Ivan the Terrible,' he was certainly an Ivan who did terrible things at Treblinka."

The substance of the court's ruling did little to change the reporting by Cleveland's media. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the acquittal "...prove[d] Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible." Last November the newspaper published a 48-page Sunday supplement on Demjanjuk, titled "The Devil Knows Where." While continuing to insist that Demjanjuk was innocent of being 'Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka,' it noted that his alibi was a lie. Reporters Bill Sloat and Michelle Lesie wrote in the supplement's prologue, "After 17 years of litigation in courtrooms on two continents, it is finally clear that John Demjanjuk was neither 'Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka' nor the hapless prisoner he claims to have been throughout World War II."

One month before Demjanjuk was acquitted in Israel, the U. S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals appointed U.S. District Judge Thomas Wiseman to investigate charges of misconduct by the O.S.I. Wiseman ruled the O.S.I. had played games with the evidence, but did not intentionally frame Demjanjuk. Wiseman also noted that because of Demjanjuk's Nazi SS service at Sobibor and his unbeliev- able alibis, concocted to hide all of his Nazi service, Demjanjuk's behavior contributed to his extradition. Wiseman wrote, "Mr. Demjanjuk's alibi was so incredible as to legitimately raise the suspicions of his prosecutors that he lied about everything."

After Israel reversed his conviction, the 6th Circuit Appeals Court ordered Demjanjuk temporarily readmitted to the country. The court declared that his presence was necessary to assist his attorneys prepare for a hearing on the O.S.I. matter. For reasons unknown, the court began and concluded the hearing a week before Demjanjuk returned to America.

The Justice Department then claimed the extradition was now moot, and the KGB documents have no bearing on Demjanjuk's denaturalization. It was now clear Demjanjuk had worked for the Nazis. The Justice Department also claimed an order to deport Demjanjuk to the Ukraine was still in effect and, because of Demjanjuk's service at Sobibor, still legally ordered. (After Federal Judge Frank Battistti stripped Demjanjuk of his citizenship, he appeared in immigra- tion court in 1984, where he was ordered deported. When asked where he would prefer to be deported, Demjanjuk refused to answer. Immigration Judge Robert Angellelli then ordered him deported to the Ukraine. The order was signed by Secretary of State George Schultz. Before the order could be carried out, Israel asked for his extradition.)

The Justice Department has filed a motion to have the federal court reaffirm the original denaturalization order, so that Demjanjuk can at last be deported to the Ukraine. Demjanjuk has also filed a motion to have his citizenship case reopened. Currently he is represented by a federal public defender.

Most legal experts believe that Demjanjuk cannot regain his American citizenship and will ultimately be deported. One historian noted that because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, deporting Demjanjuk now does not represent the death sentence it did a decade ago. "Demjanjuk will fare better in an independent Ukraine than if the deportation order had been implemented a decade ago. In 1984 Demjanjuk would have landed in the grip of a legal system that took a dim view of Soviet soldiers going to work for the Nazis."

Today Demjanjuk is rarely seen in public. He does not venture from his house, except to attend church. The Seven Hills Police Department have posted several 'no trespassing' signs in his front yard. The blinds on the front windows are drawn closed day and night.

Until the government deports him, public perception of Demjanjuk is likely to remain unfettered by the facts of his past. Many who concede Demjanjuk's past believe he has been punished enough already. Others who still believe in his innocence view the loss of seventeen years from his life as a tragedy.

Dershowitz sees it differently.

"The tragedy is not that John Demjanjuk has lost 16 or 17 years of his life. The tragedy is that he had 20 to 25 good years of life with his family after the Second World War. His victims didn't have those years."

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