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Published: Friday, 5/15/2009

Demjanjuk legacy moves to another generation

MORE than 20 years ago, we met in a local diner not far from his suburban Cleveland home. John Demjanjuk, Jr., was a scared-looking teenager. He had every reason to be when he slid into a side booth. His father was a marked man, a fiend accused of living a lie.

In the early days of the John Demjanjuk drama, young John was frequently a part of news reports. It was he and brother-in-law Ed Nichnic, married then to sister Irene, who usually accompanied the old man to his frequent court appearances. Ed became the de facto spokesman for the Demjanjuk family, but occasionally John, Jr. would utter a brief, passing comment in support of his father.

The oldest Demjanjuk daughter, Lydia, quickly grew disillusioned with media hounding her dad, believing coverage of his trials and tribulations to be largely biased. Back then, as a TV reporter filing reports daily on Demjanjuk developments, I was part of that press horde and often wondered how the simple family from Seven Hills coped with its sudden thrust into worldwide notoriety.

Before allegations surfaced that John Demjanjuk was a former Nazi death camp guard, he was an ordinary, hard-working immigrant - like countless others in the country - who settled in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood. He racked up lots of overtime as a machinist at the Ford plant in Parma to afford his small, yellow-brick ranch on a 2-acre lot and raise three children.

By all accounts he achieved the American dream until everything was destroyed. In 1977, the U.S. Justice Department initiated a case against him as one of Nazi Germany's most nefarious criminals, Ivan the Terrible, an infamous Treblinka death camp guard.

It was the beginning of the end for the burly, bald Ukrainian with the oversized glasses. Years of legal wrangling would follow with prosecutions and appeals, stays and transfers, extradition to Israel, conviction, death sentence, and stunning acquittal. His citizenship would be stripped, restored, and revoked again.

This week, he left his Ohio home for deportation to Munich to face new accusations about being another notorious guard in another Nazi death camp. But when the whole ordeal began more than 30 years ago, a kid in ill-fitting suits learned to put on a stoic faade to mask what he was enduring at home, in school, with peers.

Surprisingly, he and Lydia agreed to talk about their pain away from the punishing glare of the courthouse circus. With a cameraman - but no camera or microphone - I waited at the diner for them to arrive.

A tall, lanky teen walked tentatively through the door followed by a shorter, plain woman in her twenties. Behind her ambled a familiar figure with a goatee. There was an uncomfortable moment when John, Lydia, and Ed Nichnic first settled in, but gradually the Demjanjuks opened up as the forlorn, furious, and forever changed offspring of a dad accused of despicable crimes.

Lydia seethed with anger about the way her father had been portrayed by some reporters who, it seemed to her, assumed him guilty as charged. With Ed interjecting, she reiterated the long-standing Demjanjuk defense that it was all a horrid case of mistaken identity.

The only thing her father was guilty of, she said, was lying when applying for his immigration visa and citizenship (as many post-World War II migrs did). He confessed to being conscripted into the Red Army, captured by the Germans, and forced to serve in a German military unit of Ukrainians, but denied being a guard who helped the Nazis.

Alleged proof to the contrary, including the infamous photo ID claiming Demjanjuk was a member of the Nazi SS, was roundly discounted by the family as weak or phony or suspiciously supplied by Russian police with an agenda. Lydia reserved particular outrage for Justice Department lawyers, whose tactics in zealous pursuit of her father included failure to disclose evidence that may have helped the retiree defend himself.

John, Jr., spoke quietly about the razzing he suffered at school, the shunning, the insults, the no one wanting to be seen with him, the isolation. It hurt that even his mother, the diminutive Vera, was tormented with unspeakable taunts at the grocery store.

Today, young John is a grown man with a family, and his sisters are middle-aged parents. But the children of the Demjanjuk children have only known a derided or defended grandpa under siege.

It's a disturbing legacy that lingers, as always, on his ultimate guilt or innocence.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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