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The Many Trials of a Nazi War Criminal

Concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk was tried for a crime he didn't commit, before his true role in the Holocaust was exposed.

Demjanjuk at Israel's Supreme Court in May 1990 / Getty Images

In April 1961, an Israeli court in Jerusalem assembled to determine the responsibility of Adolf Eichmann, a former senior Nazi official, for the transportation of European Jews to concentration camps and death camps in the Third Reich, among other crimes. That the prosecution, 16 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, of a single if prominent Nazi official rivaled the Allies’ expansive postwar tribunal in its moral drama was as much a testament to the conduct of the trial as to the identity of the plaintiff. Israeli prosecutors presented their case as a reckoning not just with Eichmann’s crimes, but with the total legacy of the Holocaust as well. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper at the time of the trial, David Ben-Gurion said that the way the trial educated the public would be its most enduring contribution: “...Eichmann’s personal fate is unimportant,” he said. “It is the unveiling of the entire extermination program against the Jews that matters.”

Princeton University Press, 337 pp., $29.95

At Nuremberg, the cohort of American, British, French, and Soviet prosecutors conducted the tribunal as a victors’ trial, using a tranche of documentary evidence captured from their wartime adversaries to prosecute Nazi officials for crimes committed during the previous six years. The Eichmann proceedings, by contrast, were a trial by and for the victims of the Holocaust. Now the emphasis was on the personal testimonies of Holocaust survivors rather than on solely on documentary materials. In Nuremberg, personal testimonies were thought by jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson to introduce too much uncertainty into the tribunal proceedings; in Jerusalem, by contrast, personal accounts of Eichmann’s atrocities were central to the trial’s moral meaning. 

As Holocaust historian Lawrence Douglas has written, the Eichmann proceedings were the “Great Holocaust Trial,” an unparalleled reckoning with the universal moral burden of the Nazi regime and its crimes. But what came—what could possibly come—after Eichmann? This is the question that guides Douglas’s new book, The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial, an account of the German trial of John Demjanjuk, an SS guard at the Sobibor death camp in Poland, in 2009. The trial in question, which Douglas recounted for Harper’s Magazine in 2012, was in fact the culmination of a four-decade, international effort to prosecute Demjanjuk for his role during the Holocaust. By Douglas’s account, the Demjanjuk affair was a tumultuous encapsulation of much of the post-Eichmann politics of international justice, shaped as they were by the wax and wane of European communism, the creation of a nascent global architecture of legal accountability for atrocities perpetrated both during the Holocaust and elsewhere, and the global process of coming to terms with Europe’s violent past.

In that way, the last Demjanjuk trial was more than the protracted legal drama that its global news coverage made it out to be. While Eichmann’s prosecutors had turned to survivor voices as evidence of the plaintiff’s guilt, the expert testimony of Holocaust historians at Munich—in particular, that of German scholar Dieter Pohl—was decisive. A bookend to sixty years of Nazi atrocity trials, the drama of Demjanjuk’s prosecution was also a harbinger of a new collective memory of the Holocaust, in which the voices of its survivors, a generation quickly dwindling in size, have faded from public view.

The story of the Demjanjuk affair began in 1952, when a perverse feature of postwar U.S. refugee legislation allowed the former Nazi guard to resettle in Decatur, Indiana, as a permanent resident. The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk had joined the SS at Sobibor after a term of service as a volunteer police auxiliary at the Trawniki concentration camp in Poland. Amendments to the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 kept in place limits on Jewish immigration to the United States while offering preferential admission to many national minorities—ethnic Germans, Ukrainians, Poles, and others—like Demjanjuk who spent time in German displaced persons camps after fleeing the westward march of the Soviet army. U.S. immigration officials were able to screen and restrict the entry of former formal members of the Nazi regime, but possessed few means of identifying those less obvious collaborators, like Demjanjuk, responsible for the local administration of Nazi violence. Like many Eastern European refugees, Demjanjuk settled in a larger city—Cleveland—soon after arriving in the United States. There, he began to carve out a new life among the city’s sizable Ukrainian Catholic minority, working as an industrial mechanic at a nearby Ford factory. He became an American citizen in 1958.

Demjanjuk’s fortunes changed in 1975, as American Jewish organizations and select Congressional representatives prompted U.S. immigration officials to revisit the cases of now-citizens of Eastern European origin who had arrived in the United States since the end of the Second World War. Advocates for greater accountability for suspected Nazi collaborators accused Eastern European Americans of sheltering a dormant constituency of erstwhile Nazis, whose arrival and residence in the United States officials had long overlooked. As with many events during the period, the ideological battles of the Cold War subsumed the belated pursuit of justice for Nazi atrocities. Amid that public pressure, a list of suspected Ukrainian war criminals residing in the United States, compiled by Soviet officials in Moscow, made its way from a Ukrainian-American communist to U.S. immigration officials in New York. (The Soviets used such acts of subterfuge to emphasize the threat of Ukrainian nationalist politics while drawing attention away from ongoing American advocacy against the persecution of Soviet Jews.) Immigration investigators identified Demjanjuk as one of few individuals on the list who was both still alive and residing in the United States.

The grounds for further investigation into Demjanjuk’s past were all too easy to uncover. In a fateful mishap, Demjanjuk had listed Sobibor, Poland on his U.S. visa application as his place of residence from 1934 to 1943. The list of suspected war criminals had referenced Demjanjuk’s service at the Sobibor death camp, and the former guard would have had little reason to reside in the remote Polish town during that period if not for his participation in the mass execution of the camp’s population. With potential confirmation of Demjanjuk’s service but few means to confirm his actions, the American investigators contacted their counterparts in Jerusalem to request their assistance. The majority of Sobibor survivors lived in Israel, and the Americans hoped that the Israelis would be able to gather the eyewitness evidence for that the U.S. case against Demjanjuk lacked.

The decade-long legal affair that followed was a cautionary tale in the evidentiary use of survivor testimony. As the Israeli investigators gathered evidence to provide to the Americans, they found few Sobibor survivors able to positively identify Demjanjuk as a perpetrator of atrocities at the death camp. Instead, multiple survivors of Treblinka, a separate death camp further north from Sobibor in Nazi-occupied Poland, identified Demjanjuk as Ivan Grozny, or “Ivan the Terrible,” a guard notorious for his abuses against the camp’s Jewish population. The newly-formed Office of Special Investigations (OSI) at the U.S. Department of Justice used the Treblinka survivor identifications that Israeli officials had furnished, as well as archival documentation of Demjanjuk’s SS membership, as the basis for a civil denaturalization proceeding against Demjanjuk. OSI submitted a motion to strip Demjanjuk of his citizenship in 1977; on February 27, 1986, Demjanjuk—now also known as Ivan Grozny—was deported to Israel.

The Eichmann trial had proven that the Israeli government was willing to prosecute international atrocity crimes in its domestic courts under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, a practice later codified in the Israeli penal code. With this jurisdiction in mind, the criminal proceedings that the Israeli government opened against Demjanjuk in 1987 shared the same historical premise as the U.S. government’s denaturalization process. For Israeli prosecutors, Demjanjuk and Ivan Grozny were one and the same; as Grozny, Demjanjuk had ordered and carried out among the most vicious atrocities perpetrated at the Treblinka death camp. As during the Eichmann affair, Israeli prosecutors saw survivor testimony as the public moral and legal thrust of their case against Demjanjuk. The court received testimony from several Treblinka survivors, whose impassioned recounting of Ivan Grozny’s atrocities transformed the trial from a dry evaluation of guilt into a performance of public memory. The court was especially moved by the testimony of Eliahu Rosenberg, a Treblinka survivor and key witness at multiple postwar Nazi war crimes trials. Approaching Demjanjuk from the witness stand, Rosenberg recalled with certainty the former guard’s “murderous eyes” from the time he had spent removing corpses from the Treblinka gas chambers. As Douglas observes, Rosenberg described Demjanjuk’s eyes in his native Yiddish rather than Hebrew, as if to signify the triumphant defiance of Rosenberg’s small act of public memory. The Israeli court convicted Demjanjuk of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to death, much as a result of convincing survivor testimonies like Rosenberg’s.

Unfortunately, the murderous eyes Rosenberg had seen in Demjanjuk were not Grozny’s. Grozny was more likely the nickname of Ivan Marchenko, a Ukrainian guard at Treblinka whose biography beyond his tenure as a gas-chamber administrator remains mysterious. Treblinka survivors in Israel were made to believe that Demjanjuk was present in the photographs that prompted their initial testimony. From there, the investigation became a robust case in collective confirmation bias; as Douglas writes, survivors were “eager to participate in the process that would bring their former tormentor to justice.” Someone had orchestrated the atrocities that the Treblinka survivors had attributed to Ivan Grozny, just not Demjanjuk. While he may have been responsible for similar atrocities at Sobibor, those crimes were outside the scope of Israeli government’s initial investigation, trial, and sentence.

The defense team approached Demjanjuk’s appeals accordingly. The Israeli Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Demjanjuk in 1993, based on new evidence from now-former Soviet archives that exonerated the guard of Ivan Grozny’s atrocities at Treblinka. In closing the book on Treblinka, however, Demjanjuk’s defense inadvertently—or, perhaps, unavoidably—reasserted the former Nazi guard’s likely responsibility for similar violence at Sobibor. Israeli prosecutors opted not to prosecute Demjanjuk for his atrocities at Sobibor, despite ample evidence of his guilt. The evidence was airtight: although they lacked significant testimonial evidence from Sobibor’s limited survivor population, investigators in Israel and at OSI looked to Soviet archival materials to corroborate select identification documents from Demjanjuk’s time at the death camp. Despite this evidence, Israeli prosecutors opted to return Demjanjuk to the United States, where he restarted life as a known-but-not-proven war criminal in Cleveland.

The U.S. government reinstated Demjanjuk’s American citizenship in 1998, though the terms of his renaturalization left open OSI’s continued investigation of his time at Sobibor. The debacle of Demjanjuk’s Jerusalem trial had laid OSI low, and senior officials at the Department of Justice were eager to transform the bungled case that the office had initiated in the 1970s into a pathbreaking legal victory. The new OSI investigation concluded in 2002, when a U.S. court permanently stripped Demjanjuk of his American citizenship. Despite the finality of the court’s decision, U.S. officials were unable to find a destination for the would-be deportee. After seven years, however, the German government finally consented, and U.S. immigration officials arranged for what was to be the final phase of the international effort to bring Demjanjuk and his atrocities to total account. 

By all accounts, Demjanjuk arrived to his indictment in a Munich court in July 2009 a beaten man. He was by then 89 years old, a far cry from the energetic, combative man Eliahu Rosenberg had confronted in Jerusalem in 1987. (Journalists covering the Munich trial jokingly referred to Demjanjuk as “Ivan the Recumbent,” a reference to the wheelchair-bound defendant’s unimposing posture during the Munich trial; the nickname became the title of Douglas’s original Harper’s dispatch.) Demjanjuk’s defense lawyers attempted to use their client’s apparent frailty to advance his case, taking every opportunity to object to Demjanjuk’s physical hardship during the trial. Their objections were to no avail, and the trial proceeded as planned. Demjanjuk stood accused of being an accessory to murder, 28,060 times over.

In contrast to the Eichmann trial and Demjanjuk’s first trial in Jerusalem, the prosecutors at Munich fashioned their case against Demjanjuk as a public exercise in defining the historical record. In some respects, this approach was a matter of circumstance as well as of design. Few more than 50 individuals survived the death camp at Sobibor, which had facilitated the execution of more than 167,000 people in the span of two years. The German prosecutors were not confident that any of the several remaining Sobibor survivors would be able to identify Demjanjuk as a member of the SS guardsmen at the camp. Without eyewitness testimony, the prosecutors used to three forms of evidence to place Demjanjuk at Sobibor: testimonies from individuals, including three Sobibor survivors and a guard who had worked with Demjanjuk at Flossenbürg, spoke to Demjanjuk’s environs; the testimonies of so-called second-generation Sobibor survivors, who were permitted to participate as co-claimants—in German, Nebenkläger—on behalf of their departed parents; and, a body of historical work about the structure of Demjanjuk’s SS police auxiliary units at Trawniki, represented by the historian Dieter Pohl. If the testimonies of survivors and their second generation provided a requisite context for Demjanjuk’s final prosecution, Pohl’s expertise allowed the court to address what Douglas describes as “the most vexing question raised by the case”: Demjanjuk’s personal responsibility for his atrocities at Sobibor. As during the Eichmann trial, the question of Demjanjuk’s voluntary decision to commit atrocities was the fundamental legal dispute, albeit here as an accomplice rather than as an orchestrator of mass murder. 

Responsibility was not simply the central question of the Demjanjuk case; it has become the primary dilemma of seeking justice after the Holocaust, and after the other atrocities that have taken place in its wake. In Jerusalem in 1961, Hannah Arendt saw Adolf Eichmann as a living emblem of a moral problem that had shaped much of her postwar thought: the problem of evil. That Eichmann’s actions were, in Arendt’s terms, banal and bureaucratic only mattered insofar as they helped shape a system founded on the primacy of violence—that is, on fundamental evil. In that sense, the Israeli government’s administration of justice for Eichmann’s crimes was a hopeless task. Where was accountability to be found in a system in which responsibility for evil was ubiquitous?

With Eichmann as with Demjanjuk, the act of justice took on a different form. Rather than condemn an evil whose atrocities were beyond condemnation, the Israeli prosecutors bore witness to its human legacy. These two proceedings made palpable the human suffering—and, in testimony, human resilience—that proved inaccessible for the prosecutors at Nuremberg. Justice became a public performance, manufactured together by the trial proceedings and their collective global audience. Arendt provocatively referred to this performance as a “show trial,” a description that has gained purchase among both supporters and detractors of such pedagogical proceedings. But show trials exist because they lack meaning; its propaganda reinforces power at the expense of justice. Here, meaning was all there was.

Writing from the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in January 2015, The New York Times succinctly captured the state of our present era: “Some 1,500 survivors attended the 60th anniversary in 2005, but on Tuesday there were fewer than 300 on hand.” What becomes of the pursuit of justice when its beneficiaries are no longer around to receive it? For Douglas, this last great Holocaust trial is a tentative answer. If justice is an act of moral theater, the drama of Demjanjuk’s trial in Munich was more Stoppard than Shakespeare. By 2009, Demjanjuk’s villainy was not in question; what was in question, however, was history’s ability to illuminate the moral nature of his crimes. History itself became a subject of dispute, an occurrence that would have been unthinkable while survivors were still able to bring testimony—right or wrong—against their perpetrators. At Munich, the German prosecutors enshrined a new form of memory, one which preserves the moral strength of survivors’ stories long after they are gone.