Posted Tuesday, June 22, 1999

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Toronto, June 21, 1999



Settling the score with John Demjanjuk


Notorious war-crimes suspect finds himself a target again after 6 years of freedom. Neighbours ask why.


Seven Hills, Ohio -- If someone wanted to flee an unspeakable past in Europe to find security and anonymity in the United States, it is easy to see the allure of this contented community of shaded streets and thinning orchards on the edge of Cleveland.

It is here, on Meadowlane Road, that John Demjanjuk bought a brick ranch house on a deep lot, near the automotive plant where he worked.

It was here that he tended his garden in the 1970s, here that he was arrested in the 1980s and here that he returned in 1993, when he thought his ordeal was over.

But for Mr. Demjanjuk, 79, the ordeal is not over and, for his antagonists, it probably never will be.

Signs on his front lawn warn against any unwelcome intrusion -- a mere knock on the door could bring a fine for trespassing, if not a jail sentence. Mr. Demjanjuk isn't some eccentric recluse; he is a prisoner under a self-imposed house arrest.

Criminal or casualty, soldier or sadist, Ivan the Terrible or Ivan the Innocent, Mr. Demjanjuk knows no peace.

More than a half-century after the Second World War, the ghosts of his contested past accost him at every turn, from the pages of his newspaper to the steps outside his door.

Last month's announcement that the U.S. Justice Department wants to withdraw his citizenship marks the latest chapter in the long-running pursuit of the man called the country's most notorious Nazi.

Since 1976, he has been charged, deported, imprisoned, tried, convicted, sentenced to hang, acquitted and repatriated.

His U.S. citizenship has been revoked, restored and challenged again.

At the root of it all is the accusation that the stocky, spare Mr. Demjanjuk -- born in Ukraine in 1920, drafted into the Soviet army in 1941 and captured by the Germans in 1942 -- is a war criminal. What has changed is the nature of his alleged crimes. Originally, prosecutors contended that Mr. Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible, who ran the gas chambers at Treblinka, one of the large Nazi death camps.

They gathered evidence and presented testimony alleging that over 18 months he helped to kill thousands of Jews.

But the argument made in May before the U.S. District Court in Cleveland, approved by Attorney-General Janet Reno, does not refer to Mr. Demjanjuk as the monstrous Ivan who ordered subordinates to throw babies into the air so he could shoot at them.

It doesn't accuse him, as survivors testified at his wrenching trial in Jerusalem, of crushing skulls, cutting off ears and putting out the eyes of his victims, living or dead.

In this "civil complaint," there is nothing about the Ivan who allegedly ordered the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl after she emerged, dazed, from the gas chambers crying for her mother. Or of the Ivan who allegedly stood in the engine room pumping poisonous carbon monoxide into the showers, having herded victims to their death with a pipe in one hand and a sword in the other.

In 1988, a panel of three judges in Israel convicted him and sentenced him to hang, but the Israeli Supreme Court reversed the decision five years later.

They found the testimony presented at his trial contradictory, suggesting that this was a case of mistaken identity.

After seven years in prison in Israel, Mr. Demjanjuk went home to Seven Hills.

Now, Ivan the Terrible is Ivan the not-so-Terrible.

The government argues that after his wartime capture, Mr. Demjanjuk was recruited as an auxiliary of the SS, the elite Nazi unit largely responsible for liquidating the Jews of Europe.

They argue that he was among hundreds of prisoners of war who were trained to run the camps. They say he was a guard at the camps of Flossenburg in Germany as well as Maidanek and Sobibor in Poland, the last of which existed solely for the purpose of exterminating Jews.

When he applied for citizenship in 1958, they say, he lied about where he was and what he did during the war. For that, they want to revoke his citizenship -- enshrined in his certificate of naturalization, No. 7,997,497, issued on Nov. 14, 1958 -- and expel him from the country.

"There is no one in the United States with more blood on his hands than John Demjanjuk," argued Neal Sher, who, from 1983 to 1994, was director of the Office of Special Investigations, which is responsible for identifying, investigating and prosecuting Nazis living illegally in the United States.

So vigorous was its pursuit of Mr. Demjanjuk that an appellate judge accused the OSI in 1993 of showing "reckless disregard for the truth" and "judicial fraud" because it did not inform Mr. Demjanjuk of exculpatory evidence -- a charge Mr. Sher argues another judge later investigated and found baseless.

"When he worked in a factory, he made cars for a living," Mr. Sher said. "At Sobibor during the war, he killed Jews for a living."

Rather than revisiting the well-thumbed catalogue of horror presented at his trial, the Justice Department argues now that Mr. Demjanjuk "willfully misrepresented material facts for the purpose of gaining admission to the United States" in 1952.

Mr. Demjanjuk said he had spent the war as a farmer in Sobibor and a labourer in Germany.

He has always denied that he was a guard at Sobibor, though he has admitted living near the hamlet, despite testimony from former guards and papers saying he worked at the camp.

The Justice Department, citing documentary evidence drawn from Russian and German archives, including a controversial SS identity card bearing his name, birth date, photo and distinguishing scar, said he had lied.


WHEN the new complaint became public on May 19, Mr. Demjanjuk had no comment. His lawyer, Michael Tigar, said he was too ill to survive another wasting court battle and too poor to wage one, having been nearly bankrupted the last time.

"Twenty-two years ago, they sued," he said. "After 21 years of litigation, it was determined that they not only had the wrong guy, but that they had defrauded the courts. We hope it doesn't take that long to demonstrate once again that the Justice Department is wrong."

The decision to try to expel Mr. Demjanjuk was applauded by Cleveland's large Jewish community, which has long demanded that war criminals be prosecuted. In an editorial, The Washington Post called the decision "correct, even courageous."

Perhaps, but it also seemed curious. If Mr. Demjanjuk had been hunted for two decades, freed by the Israeli Supreme Court -- seemingly the least likely to favour him -- and is now old and ailing, well, isn't it time to let him be?

The government says no, but on Meadowlane Road, a leafy street fringed with broad lawns tinged with rust, Mr. Demjanjuk's neighbours disagree.

Rather than an alleged war criminal, they see a kindly Rotarian who made dumplings for church picnics, panelled his basement, shovelled his snow, fixed children's bicycles and played outside with his German shepherd.

"He is a nice, normal man," said Linda Barnett, who lives across the street. "I can't honestly say what he did. But if he did do what they say he did, he was forced to do it. I don't think he found it enjoyable."

In her back yard, in this picture of suburban serenity, her children are splashing in a plastic swimming pool. A U.S. flag snaps in a warm breeze, one of many on the street, where the bungalows and ranch houses reflect the success of the middle class of the postwar era.

Today, those houses cost about $130,000 (U.S.) and two cars or more fill each driveway. There is no sidewalk and no street parking, as if to discourage visitors from lingering.

Although five houses on the street are for sale, real-estate agent Carrie Villwock insisted that it has nothing to do with Mr. Demjanjuk's renewed notoriety. "I didn't even know he lives on the street," she said.

Like the others, she cannot fathom gas chambers, barbed wire and crematoriums.

Ms. Barnett, who has lived here for six years, said people view Mr. Demjanjuk as "the grandfatherly type" -- soft-spoken and self-effacing.

"He has been given a hard time, and he should be left alone," a neighbour up the street growled. Washing her van, she declined to discuss life with Mr. Demjanjuk, unhappy with the intrusion.

If she is angry, it is unclear whether it is out of sympathy for the besieged Mr. Demjanjuk or the notoriety he has brought this sleepy enclave.

After all, this is not the place you would expect to find a man like this; then again, it may be precisely the place for a man like this.


SEVEN Hills is a community of 12.5 square kilometres and 13,000 people, 21 kilometres southwest of Cleveland. It is one of a clutch of municipalities with names like Parma and Independence favoured by immigrants from Eastern Europe. A village said to have taken its name from the seven hills of Rome, it became a city in 1961.

After arriving in the United States with his wife in 1952, Mr. Demjanjuk worked for a few months on a farm in Indiana. Then, through Ukrainian friends who had emigrated to Ohio, he found work at the Ford engine plant near Cleveland.

In the early years, he lived in rented homes in the city. Having prospered as an autoworker, he moved here, joining the great migration to the suburbs. The American dream was now his too: a three-bedroom house, a driveway and a garage, on a property with flower beds and coniferous trees. A place to raise his three children.

Today, those trees have grown dense, linking limbs in a gesture of defiance, though they cannot hide his house. There is no number on his mailbox or front door, but the three signs that read "No Trespassing -- By order of Seven Hills Police" give him away.

Police Chief John Fechko said Mr. Demjanjuk doesn't want protesters chanting on his lawn, wearing the striped gowns and yellow Stars of David of the victims of the camps, as they did in 1993 when he returned from Israel.

The chief seems sympathetic. "He has committed no criminal act that I am aware of," he said, adding that "the residents are pretty well fed up with it. 'Can't we do something about it?' they ask me."

Mr. Fechko was careful not to take a position. But when he talked about the rights of the residents (one protester shouted at a child, "How does it feel to live beside a murderer?"), you get the sense that he, too, would like them to leave Mr. Demjanjuk alone.

"He could have been my grandfather," he said. "He appears to be law-abiding. He was active in his church. He cuts his grass. He goes shopping. He spends time with his family."

Here and around town, there is a sensitivity about Mr. Demjanjuk.

For example, Mayor Gerald Trafis, who isn't shy about appending his name to every public-works project in town, wouldn't put his name to a comment on his most celebrated taxpayer.

But down the corridor at City Hall, a clerk is embarrassed by his presence in her city. "It's a blight on all of us," she sniffed. "He could have lived anywhere, but he chose here."

For his prosecutors, whether Mr. Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible is suddenly immaterial. They say he was a guard at a death camp and he lied about it when he entered the country. Case closed.

"The guards were engaged in murder," said Mr. Sher, the former prosecutor who is now an adviser to the Canadian government on war crimes as well as chief of staff to an international commission processing insurance claims from the Holocaust.

"They met the transports. They unloaded Jews. They undressed them. They drove them into the gas chambers. They were central participants. They were all cogs in the killing machine."

For Mr. Sher, the world must recognize who Mr. Demjanjuk was.

On Meadowlane Road, though, the world knows only who he is.

Today, inside his house, behind drawn curtains and glass-brick windows, an old man awaits judgment. Once again, in a courtroom downtown, Mr. Demjanjuk's Seven Hills is preparing to meet Mr. Sher's Sobibor.

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Our opinion
  THE JEWISH persecution of a man who has been cleared of wrongdoing by their own (Israeli) Supreme Court must stop. Website visitors are urged to write to the Canadian newspaper commending them for their bravery in publishing such articles as this. As Mr Cohen writes: "If Mr. Demjanjuk had been hunted for two decades, freed by the Israeli Supreme Court -- seemingly the least likely to favour him -- and is now old and ailing, well, isn't it time to let him be?"

If you write to a newspaper don't forget: 1. keep it short; 2. add your mail address and a daytime telephone number; they will not print it otherwise.

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