John Demjanjuk: The US autoworker accused of being Nazi death camp criminal Ivan the Terrible
Family man living in Cleveland twice found guilty of holocaust atrocities features in new Netflix series
by Colin Drury
Tuesday 05 November 2019 18:03
In the tight-knit Ukrainian community of Cleveland, John Demjanjuk was known as a church-going family man.
He worked hard at the citys Ford motor plant for more than 20 years and had three children. He was quiet, it was said, but friendly.
What his neighbours, colleagues and friends could never have guessed was that this shy bespectacled man may well have had the darkest of secrets.
During the Second World War, he was, it now seems likely, a Nazi concentration camp guard of such notorious sadism that he became known as Ivan The Terrible.
Among his most shocking actions were hacking the ears and noses off Jews as they were led to the gas chambers, a court eventually heard. He took particular glee in flogging women and children, it was told.
Now, a new Netflix series exploring the still-baffling case of Demjanjuk has once again raised the question of just who this quiet Cleveland resident was and what exactly he did before his arrival in the US in 1952?
The series called The Devil Next Door is not the first time the question has been addressed.
As with the streaming services The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann documentary, much of what is included will be well known to those familiar with the story.
Yet the mystery of Demjanjuk who was convicted of holocaust atrocities twice in two different countries but saw one conviction overturned and died with his appeal of the second pending remains grimly fascinating.
What we do know about him for sure is that he was born in Ukraine in 1920, was drafted into the Soviet Red Army in 1940, and was captured by the Nazis in 1942. A decade later, he arrived in Cleveland, a married father and with enough mechanical know-how to get his job at Ford.
What we dont know is what exactly happened in the years between his capture and the end of the war.
Demjanjuk maintained until his death in 2012 that he had been a prisoner at a labour camp before being forced to work as a guard and then fight for the Nazis.
Yet evidence suggests he actually volunteered to work at the notorious Treblinka and Sobibor extermination camps in Poland, where his horrific brutality, even amidst genocide, earned him his chilling terrible nickname.
It was in the late 1970s that the US government first announced its suspicions about this role in the Holocaust before revoking his citizenship and, in 1981, extraditing him to Israel for a drawn-out and high-profile trial.
There, several survivors of Treblinka identified him as Ivan the Terrible.
I say it unhesitatingly, without the slightest shadow of a doubt, said one, Eliyahu Rosenberg. It is Ivan from Treblinka, from the gas chambers, the man I am looking at now
I saw his eyes, I saw those murderous eyes.
He was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1988 yet was sensationally acquitted in 1993 after new evidence came to light that it may have been a case of mistaken identity.
He was freed and returned to the US, yet questions about his wartime activity would not go away.
In 2002, an American judge ruled there was evidence that he had been a guard at Sobibor and, following complex legal hearings, he was extradited to Germany in 2009 to be tried as an accessory to the murders of 27,900 people.
It was a notoriously difficult hearing with Demjanjuks actions difficult to pin down almost seven decades on.
No surviving witnesses could identify him as being at Sobibor during the Munich trial, meaning the prosecution relied almost entirely on documentary evidence an SS identity card and recorded Nazi orders most prominent among them.
Yet it was enough to convict. He was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to five years in prison.
Even this, however, was not straightforward in the end. Demjanjuks family launched an appeal and were in the middle of that process when he passed away aged 91 at a nursing home.
John Demjanjuk was kidnapped by the Israelis and taken to Israel and put on trial as Ivan the Terrible, a concentration camp guard at Treblinka and Sobibor camps in Poland. His conviction in Israel was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court.
Then he was extradited to Germany and put on trial there. He passed away at the age of 91 in a nursing home before his family could finish the appeal of his conviction in Germany.
This man was done wrong in the most cruel fashion and his life was ruined in the process.