Isralei court to rule on 'Ivan the Terrible' Wrenching saga may be ending for ex-U.S. auto worker, Israeli people

December 23, 1991|By Boston Globe

JERUSALEM -- It was not only a sensational trial of a former guard at a Nazi death camp but a national catharsis filled with heart-wrenching testimony and then a kind of liberating calm.

In April 1988, after a televised trial to which schoolchildren were brought on field trips, a panel of three Israeli judges pronounced John Demjanjuk, a retired Cleveland auto worker, to be Ivan the Terrible, the Treblinka gas chamber operator who impressed even fellow death camp guards with his butchery.

The court said it determined "unhesitatingly and with utter conviction" that Demjanjuk was the dreaded Ivan, and he was sentenced to hang.

But while Demjanjuk, 71, is still in jail awaiting execution, compelling evidence -- to be considered by the high court of appeals today -- has turned up in Soviet and German archives that raises serious questions about whether the judges condemned the wrong man.

Israeli prosecutors, who relied both on eyewitness accounts from Treblinka survivors and on a Soviet-supplied identity card showing Demjanjuk with an SS identity number, have uncovered new evidence that even if Demjanjuk was not at Treblinka, he worked in two other camps, Sobibor and Trawniki.

Reports of the new questions prompted the U.S. Justice Department to say it is giving "careful attention" to a review of "the John Demjanjuk matter." A Justice Department statement said that "upon completion of the review, the department will take whatever action is appropriate."

Demjanjuk's defense lawyer, Yoram Sheftel, who located the Soviet files a year ago, called this "one of the most egregious examples of mistaken identity" in legal history.

Israeli commentators, who at one time said the trial had taught a new generation about the Holocaust and helped suppress anti-Semitic efforts to deny the most systematic evil the world has ever known, are now very worried.

"This will make a lot of bad people very happy," said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israel branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Demjanjuk has insisted he had no connection to Treblinka. No documents had ever linked him to the death camp.

But Demjanjuk's lawyers say it is other new evidence, obtained from Soviet files, that will expose the trial as a sham -- war crime testimony of some 20 former Treblinka guards tried in the Soviet Union between 1944 and 1961, all of whom identify Ivan the Terrible as a man named Ivan Marchenko.

Marchenko is described as having brown or black hair and in his 30s. Demjanjuk was dark blond and in his early 20s during 1942 and 1943, the years in question. Marchenko is said by one witness to have had thick lips and a long scar on his right cheek or neck. Demjanjuk has thin lips and a scar on his back but nowhere else.

Nearly 900,000 Jews perished in less than a year at Treblinka, in eastern Poland, one of three camps built by the Nazis for the sole purpose of extermination.

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