Demjanjuk's community on defensive

September 23, 1993|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

CLEVELAND -- The wood-and-wire fence went up yesterday morning around the modest, blond brick home in suburban Seven Hills. Earlier, bright-pink professionally printed signs sprouted on doors, windows and trees of the neighboring homes: "NO TRESPASSING. PRIVATE PROPERTY."

The wagons have circled around the frail-looking 73-year-old neighbor who has been absent for seven years, save for images in the media. Although sprung on Tuesday from an Israeli prison, he remains locked in a heated, history-bound controversy that prevents this man, accused of being a Nazi death-camp guard, from returning to the neighborhood that would embrace him even as others would condemn him to the same fate as his alleged victims.

John Demjanjuk reportedly spent his first day back in the United States yesterday at a "safe house" in the Cleveland area rather than at his own home in this trim and tidy suburb some 10 miles south of Cleveland, past the smokestacks and tire plants of the ** industrial world of which he, as a retired autoworker, was once an anonymous part.

While he eluded the media by arriving in a small airfield in Medina County, his neighborhood was besieged by Jewish activists protesting his return. With some clad in evocative striped outfits patterned after those worn by death camp prisoners, a group of about 30 demonstrators marched down the street and decried the return of the man acquitted of being "Ivan the Terrible," a brutal gas-chamber guard at Treblinka in Nazi-occupied Poland.

But, to judge from the few neighbors willing to talk to reporters, and the traffic on the radio talk shows, the true horror is the "persecution" of Mr. Demjanjuk.

"I think this is terrible. There's no reason for this. It happened many years ago, and if it's true what they say happened, it was his job," said Sharon Otcovsky, who has lived down the block from the Demjanjuks for 20 years. "I can understand how the Jewish people feel, but what's happened has happened. And when he's gone, if he did anything wrong, then God will take care of it."

But on the other side of town, Mr. Demjanjuk's return reopened the wounds of the Holocaust for this area's substantial Jewish population of 60,000 to 70,000.

"They burned my grandfather. My father went up in smoke," Zev Harel, president of a local Holocaust survivors group, said flatly last night. "My jaws were broken by SS, so I can tell you what SS can do, and he is SS."

Mr. Harel's group, Kol Israel Foundation, met last night at a synagogue in suburban Beechwood to plan another protest at the Demjanjuk home today, as well as a rally in downtown Public Square on Monday. He and other survivors, their pain palpable in their voices and, for some, tear-stained faces, expressed outrage at what they considered the local media's portrayal of Mr. Demjanjuk as a victim of persecution.

The media, however, spent most of the day in Mr. Demjanjuk's neighborhood, where many in the largely white, blue-collar enclave were unwilling to speak.

"No comment," several neighbors spat out as reporters approached from major U.S. daily newspapers, CNN and several Israeli publications. The residents drove by, grim-faced and disapproving, as their quiet neighborhood was overrun by protecting police officers and invading satellite teleport trucks.

The news media, staking out the Demjanjuk residence in an unsuccessful attempt to catch any family members, resorted to ordering pizza. The clannish neighborhood atmosphere was further heightened by what many consider the agitation of outsiders. Leading yesterday's demonstration, for example, was Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of a New York-based group called the Coalition for Jewish Concern. "Go back to New York," one talk-show host declared on the air while discussing the controversy.

And, indeed, it is the outside rather than the local Jewish community that has drawn fire. There's no tension between local Eastern European immigrants and the local Jewish community because they're too far apart to have any relationship, tense or otherwise, explained Mr. Demjanjuk's pastor, the Rev. John Nakonachny of St. Vladimir's Ukrainian Orthodox Church in neighboring Parma.

"Cleveland is divided by the Cuyahoga River, and east of it is where the Jewish people live, and west of it is where the Ukrainians live," said Father Nakonachny, whose church members held dinners and fund-raisers to help defray their parishioner's legal battles. "We don't associate, but it's because of geography."

Yet there are tensions nonetheless, albeit often unstated ones. Father Nakonachny and others raise the issue of Ukrainian persecution at the hands of former Soviet leader Josef V. Stalin, claiming it is less well-known to the public than the Holocaust because of the media.

"The Jewish people have to understand that we can sympathize with them," Father Nakonachny said. "It's not Jewish vs. Ukrainian.

"This is the era Mr. Demjanjuk grew up in," he said, opening the door to a room in the school of his gold onion-domed parish, which, like numerous other churches in this area, would be quite at home on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore. The room is a sort of mini-museum, its walls lined with pictures of painfully emaciated children and adults that look like archival photographs of Auschwitz or Buchenwald. Instead, Father Nakonachny said, they show victims of the famine imposed as part of Stalin's repression of the Ukraine.

The parish is planning a memorial to the famine victims that will be dedicated Oct. 31. Father Nakonachny, who has been in phone contact with Mr. Demjanjuk's relatives throughout the ordeal, says he hopes his most famous member will attend.

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