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Published: Monday, 6/4/2001

Suspected Nazi guard is prisoner of past

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

CLEVELAND - When alleged Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk walked out of an Israeli prison in 1993, it appeared he had seen his last courtroom and would live out his life in his suburban home here.

Federal prosecutors thought differently.

Even though it had been proven that Mr. Demjanjuk was not “Ivan the Terrible,” the Treblinka concentration camp guard who assisted in the killing of thousands of Jews, authorities still believed he worked as a guard at other death camps. So last week, 24 years after it first pursued Mr. Demjanjuk, the government set out to convince a federal court judge that he should be stripped of his American citizenship and, at age 81, deported.

The government's new case centers on seven German documents found in the archives of four countries which authorities say prove that Mr. Demjanjuk was a Nazi prison guard and a member of the Waffen SS, an elite group of Nazi guards. They include a service identity pass, a disciplinary report, four rosters, and a weapon and equipment log.

Authorities have lined up a batch of experts to vouch that the documents are genuine.

Mr. Demjanjuk, a native of Ukraine and retired Ford Motor Co. mechanic, has long maintained he was captured by the Germans while serving in the former Soviet Union's army and spent much of the war working for the Nazis as a prisoner of war.

The defense has no solid evidence to validate his claim.

It does, however, have as its lead attorney Michael A. Tigar, a 60-something, Washington-based law professor who resembles the actor Tommy Lee Jones. He's as folksy as Andy Griffith, but has the demeanor of an angry pit bull when cross-examining government witnesses.

Such was the case Wednesday afternoon in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Paul R. Matia after Justice Department attorney Jonathan Drimmer spent two hours qualifying one of his witnesses, Dr. Charles W. Sydnor, Jr., an historian who has written about Nazi war crimes.

It took about two minutes for Mr. Tigar to get Dr. Sydnor to admit he once gave a speech during which he said Mr. Demjanjuk was indeed “Ivan the Terrible,” called him a monster, and endorsed his execution.

Quoting from Dr. Sydnor's long-ago speech, Mr. Tigar said: “He should be hanged and the cause of justice would never be better served.”

Responded Dr. Sydnor: “The speech was based on what I knew at the time from courts in the U.S. and from what I followed from 1987 to 1989. It was a mistake. I was wrong.”

That was the liveliest exchange in an otherwise dull day in court, where the defense, prosecution, and court staff outnumbered those in the gallery, most of whom were reporters.

Joining the defense were Mr. Demjanjuk's son, John, Jr., and son-in-law, Edward Nishnic. They have been Mr. Demjanjuk's staunchest, and most public, defenders.

Though in the past Mr. Nishnic has served as the family's spokesman, neither man is talking about the case to reporters during the trial. Neither is Mr. Tigar.

Federal attorneys are not commenting either. The trial is expected to last two more weeks.

Mr. Demjanjuk has yet to appear. He is listed as one of the government's 12 witnesses, but no one is saying when he'll take the stand.

“I don't know whether the government will call him in their case or not but at some point in the trial he will take the stand as he has done so many times in the last 24 years,” Mr. Tigar said as he left the courthouse Wednesday evening.

Mr. Demjanjuk has lived in seclusion and without public comment in Seven Hills, 15 miles south of downtown Cleveland, since his 1993 return from Israel. He is said to be in poor health, but his family will not confirm it.

Seven Hills once had a large Ukrainian population but their numbers have dwindled in recent years, according to Mr. Demjanjuk, Jr. His father, married with three grown children, still attends a nearby Ukrainian Orthodox church. He enjoys gardening and playing with his grandchildren.

“He's a good person. He's a gentle person. He's a caring person. He's not a killer; he never was and never could be, and never will be,” Mr. Demjanjuk, Jr. said in a 1999 interview.

Mr. Demjanjuk immigrated to the Cleveland area in 1952. In his visa application, he claimed he had been displaced after the war. He also said he worked on a farm in Sobibor, Poland, from 1936-43, worked at a harbor in Danzig, Germany, in 1944, and was a railway worker in Munich in 1945, authorities said. He became a U.S. citizen in 1958 changed his first name from Ivan to John.

Federal prosecutors say they will prove through validation of the seven documents that Mr. Demjanjuk lied on his visa application form and that, as a Nazi death camp guard at the Sobibor, Okzow, and Majdanek camps in Poland and the Flossenburg camp in Germany, he was a member of the Waffen and thus hostile to the United States. By law, both offenses should result in revocation of Mr. Demjanjuk's citizenship, they say.

The Demjanjuks lived in peace and relative prosperity until 1977. That's when survivors of a Nazi death camp at Treblinka, Poland, picked his picture out of a photo array and claimed he was “Ivan the Terrible.” The Justice Department began its fight to strip Mr. Demjanjuk of his citizenship which, after four years, was successful.

In 1986, he was extradited to Israel to become the second accused Nazi war criminal tried there. The first, Holocaust architect Adolf Eichman, was tried and hanged in 1962. A three-judge panel found Mr. Demjanjuk guilty two years later and sentenced him to death, a verdict he appealed.

After the dismantling of the Soviet Union, evidence emerged showing that “Ivan the Terrible” was not Mr. Demjanjuk but a man named Ivan Marchenko. A 1991 investigation directed by U.S. Rep. James Traficant (D., Youngstown) found that the Justice Department had evidence of the real Ivan as far back as 1981.

This information was given to Mr. Demjanjuk's Israeli lawyer who, in 1993, successfully petitioned the country's Supreme Court to overturn the verdict against Mr. Demjanjuk, sending him home to Seven Hills.

In 1998, Judge Matia restored Mr. Demjanjuk's citizenship, but left the door open for the Justice Department to pursue new charges against him. Federal attorneys quickly prepared their case, but Mr. Demjanjuk's lawyers delayed the trial for more than two years.

On Tuesday, they were back in court.

The issue that day was the identity pass from the Trawniki death camp that correctly noted a scar on Mr. Demjanjuk's back as well as his exact birth date, place of birth, and hair color.

But the government witness, Gideon Epstein, could not say for sure if the signature on the card belonged to Mr. Demjanjuk.

Mr. Tigar said the card belonged to another man and that without DNA, fingerprints, or witnesses, no one could place his client at any Nazi camp. He also said that some of the seven documents the government is using against Mr. Demjanjuk could have been tampered with or forged.

On Wednesday morning, the prosecution scored a point when Larry Stewart, the U.S. Secret Service's laboratory director, testified that the identity pass and photo were originals and that the ink on the card matches ink used by the Nazis on other documents.

On Wednesday afternoon, however, the flamboyant Mr. Tigar got Dr. Sydnor to admit that he had wanted to see Mr. Demjanjuk hanged, bringing into question Dr. Sydnor's credibility as a government witness.

But Dr. Sydnor remained on the stand and on Thursday he testified that he believed all the German documents were authentic and belonged to Mr. Demjanjuk.

Joel Ratner, director of the local Anti-Defamation League, believes Judge Matia will have an easy decision. “The government has good documents and a strong case. We're just waiting for him to do the right thing,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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