John Demjanjuk Denaturalization Trial: 1981

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John Demjanjuk Denaturalization Trial:

Defendant: John Demjanjuk
Crime Charged: Illegal procurement of U.S. citizenship
Chief Defense Lawyer: John Martin
Chief Prosecutors: Norman Moskowitz and George Parker
Judge: Frank Battisti
Place: Cleveland, Ohio
Dates of Trial: February 10-June 23, 1981
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: U.S. naturalization revoked

SIGNIFICANCE: The denaturalization trial of accused war criminal John Demjanjuk marked the beginning of a long and acrimonious legal battle that would be fought out in courtrooms on two continents for more than a decade.

In 1975 the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began investigating a list of approximately 70 war criminals allegedly living in America. High on this list was a sadistic Ukrainian guard known as "Ivan the Terrible," who had personally gassed thousands of Jews in the Nazi death camp at Treblinka in 1942-43. Evidence suggested that after the war Ivan had entered America illegally and was currently living in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1977, a 57-yearold Ford Motor Company plant mechanic named John Demjanjuk was accused of being Ivan the Terrible.

Demjanjuk arrived in America in 1952. Six years later he was granted citizenship. At this time he also Anglicized his name from Ivan to John. In 1979 INS investigators were shown a photocopied identification card purportedly issued to an "Ivan Denjanjuk" at Trawniki, a German training camp for SS elite guards in Poland. Demjanjuk denied that the card was his. When several ex-Treblinka inmates identified the person shown on the ID card as "Ivan the Terrible," the INS decided to review Demjanjuk's application to find out if he had covered up any concentration camp activities. If this turned out to be the case, his citizenship could be revoked.

The hearing began on February 10, 1981. Prosecutor Norman Moskowitz led off with the expert witnesses. It was their job to verify the disputed ID card. Professor Wolfgang Sheffler, an acknowledge Nazi expert, admitted never having seen a card exactly like it, but he thought the information shown on the Trawniki card seemed genuine. Heinrich Schaeffer, a former paymaster at Trawniki, declared unequivocally that the card was genuine.

Holocaust Survivors Testify

Next came the victims of Ivan the Terrible's barbarism. Of more than a million prisoners who passed through the gates of Treblinka, fewer than 60 survived to tell the world of the horrors it had housed. Of that 60, only five were left. Four had flown half-way around the world, prepared to swear John Demjanjuk was indeed Ivan the Terrible.

Yehiel Reichman, 65, had seen Ivan daily at Treblinka and had no difficulty in identifying Demjanjuk. Similarly, Pinhas Epstein described Ivan "a big, thickset man" who operated the diesel engine that pumped deadly carbon monoxide into the gas chambers. He also saw Ivan beat prisoners to death with a lead pipe.

Others followed, including Eliahu Rosenberg, who had worked as corpse carrier, clearing the chambers of dead bodies, and Sonia Lewkowicz, a laundress. All had tales to tell, and all identified Demjamjuk as the demon who had murdered thousands. Try as he might, defense counsel John Martin could not budge any of them.

When it came time to testify on his own behalf, Demjanjuk did so briefly and in Ukrainian. His defense was that he had never been at Treblinka at all: it was all a case of mistaken identity. He dismissed the ID card as a KGB forgery (the card had originally surfaced in the Soviet Union). According to Demjanjuk, throughout 1942-43 he was an imprisoned Soviet soldier at a German POW camp at Chelm in Poland.

The testimony was heard by Judge Frank Battisti, sitting alone without a jury. After lengthy deliberation, in a 44delivered decision Battisti found on page had illegally naturalization June 23, 1981, by Judge that Demjanjuk record and concealing obtained U.S. wartime his ordered the immediate revocation of his citizenship.

This opened the door for deportation proceedings. Appeals delayed the process until May 23, 1984, when Demjanjuk was given 30 days to leave the country voluntarily. He chose to stay and fight. In February 1985 the INS Board of Appeals ruled that Demjanjuk's background denied him the privilege of voluntary departure and he was imprisoned to await the results of an extradition request made by Israel. On February 27, 1986, Demjanjuk was escorted by two U.S. marshals onto an El Al 747, Israeli airlines jet, bound for Tel Aviv.

Sentenced to Death

John Demjanjuk finally faced his accusers in a Jerusalem courtroom on February 16, 1987. In a emotional trial, the same witnesses who had denounced him in Cleveland repeated their accusations. During testimony Demjanjuk seemed vague and evasive about his past. On April 18, 1988, after 14 months of testimony, Judge Dove Levin read the verdict of the three-member bench: "We determine unequivocally and without the slightest hesitation or doubt that the accused is Ivan [the Terrible]. We therefore find guilty as charged, a) of crimes against the Jewish people; b) of crimes against humanity; c) of war crimes." One week later Demjanjuk was condemned to be hanged.

In January 1992, Israel's Supreme Court announced that it would hear fresh evidence culled from Soviet archives, supporting defense claims of misidentification. The evidence is compelling: 21 former Soviet Treblinka inmates all identified Ivan the Terrible as not Demjanjuk but another Ukrainian, someone strikingly similarly, Ivan Merchanko (present whereabouts unknown). Other evidence strongly suggested that Demjanjuk was a lower-echelon guard at another Nazi camp, not Treblinka.

On July 28, 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned Demjanjuk's conviction, ruling that the totality of the evidence indicated he was not Ivan the Terrible. On February 20, 1998, the Federal District Court of Cleveland reinstated Demjanjuk's U.S. citizenship. However, the court authorized the government to reinstitute denaturalization proceedings if evidence of other offenses by Demjanjuk are ever uncovered.

Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable: memories fade and sometimes fail. If John Demjanjuk is Ivan the Terrible then he is one of the 20th century's worst criminals. If not, he might still be a man with much to hide.

Colin Evans

Suggestion for Further Reading

Loftus, Elizabeth and Katherine Ketcham. Witness For The Defense. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Teicholz, Tom. The Trial Of Ivan The Terrible. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Wagenaar, Willem A. Identifying Ivan. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988.

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John Demjanjuk Denaturalization Trial: 1981

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