November 16, 2018

Twisted tale of Demjanjuk

Among Nazi war criminals who have faced justice, ranging from Hermann Goering to Adolf Eichmann, we find John Demjanjuk, who was charged with participating in the murder of 29,060 Jews as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp. Unlike the more notorious Nazis, Demjanjuk actually had Jewish blood on his hands.

The overarching question Richard Rashke asks, and answers, in “Useful Enemies: John Demjanjuk and America’s Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals” (Delphinium Books, $29.95) carries a sting: “Why did it take almost 60 years for the United States to find and extradite John Demjanjuk for trial in Germany as a Nazi collaborator?”

Rashke is the right man to answer the weighty question.  The author of “Escape From Sobibor,” among other books, he navigates through the complexities of history and politics of the mid-20th century with an expert eye. He reminds us, for example, that Demjanjuk was a Ukrainian draftee in the Red Army when he was captured in 1943 by the Germans, who offered him an opportunity to join the Waffen SS and turn his coat against his Soviet homeland.  Demjanjuk concealed the details of his war service when he applied for refugee status in the United States and was welcomed to America in 1952. 

Not until 1977 did the U.S. Justice Department finally catch up with Demjanjuk. By then, as Rashke shows us, a few whistleblowers in the INS and some courageous politicians were on the trail of Nazis and their collaborators who had managed to reach America.  The Demjanjuk case was plagued with possible misidentifications by witnesses and the suspicion of evidence-tampering by the KGB, as well as the repercussions from the rival political agendas of Ukrainian nationalists and the Soviet authorities, but Demjanjuk’s citizenship was revoked on the grounds that he had lied about his wartime crimes, and he was extradited to Israel for trial.

The nagging question throughout the legal proceedings was whether Demjanjuk was the monster known as “Ivan the Terrible” who tortured and murdered Jews at Treblinka, or a slightly less monstrous (but no less culpable) camp guard who murdered Jews at Sobibor, or, as Demjanjuk insisted, a poor Ukrainian shlep who put on a Nazi uniform to save his own life but sat out the war without killing anyone. Ivan the Terrible’s deeds, as narrated in heartbreaking detail by his victims, are so grotesque that they read like a chapter from the Marquis de Sade, but Demjanjuk swore that it was all a big mistake.

“Honorable Judges, I am not the hangman or henchman you are after,” he told the Israeli judges. “My heart aches, and I grieve deeply for what was done to your people by the Nazis. … Please do not put the noose around my neck for things that were done by others.”

The Israeli court found him guilty as charged and sentenced him to hang in 1988. Remarkably, while the case was on appeal, a former prostitute who serviced the guards at Treblinka appeared on “60 Minutes” to affirm that Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible, a man she claimed to know intimately by reason of her trade.  Additional evidence was brought to light to suggest that they had the wrong man, including testimony by other Treblinka guards who knew Ivan the Terrible. The Israeli Supreme Court courageously but controversially reversed the conviction and Demjanjuk returned to the United States, where the Court of Appeals restored his citizenship. 

Along the way, Rashke reprises the heartbreaking history of American immigration policy, which did little to rescue Jews during the war or to shelter them after the war, but welcomed Nazis and their collaborators, ranging from Wernher von Braun to Demjanjuk.  Indeed, he argues that the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 actually discriminated against Jewish refugees. “Just as the United States had blocked the entry of more than nine hundred St. Louis refugees under the old immigration law,” he writes, “it now blocked the entry of Jewish refugees under the new 1948 legislation.”  At the same time, political machinations — or, in the case of Demjanjuk, bureaucratic indifference — permitted veterans of the SS to freely enter the United States. Although Demjanjuk is the centerpiece of his book, Rashke ranges across 50 years of history and examines the fate of countless other Nazi war criminals.

Rashke is a disciplined writer who supports his contentions with hard facts.  But he is also driven by his own deep passions, and he is perfectly willing to name names — Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and J. Edgar Hoover, among others, are singled out for their complicity in what amounts to a decades-long policy of protecting war criminals.  He concedes, for example, that both the prosecution and the defense in the Demjanjuk case “distorted or fabricated historical facts.” But he is also quick to praise those who fought to bring Nazis to justice, including former New York Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who authored the legislation that “made inadmissible to the United States ‘participants in Nazi persecution, genocide, or the commission or any act of torture or extrajudicial killing.’ ”

The Demjanjuk case was revived in 2001, when he was charged with being a guard at Sobibor and participating in mass murder on the basis of new documentary evidence that had come to light — a “trial by archive,” as Rashke puts it — and the defendant was once again stripped of his citizenship.  Now it was Germany that sought to extradite the 90-year-old Demjanjuk, who left America on a stretcher and appeared in the German court on a gurney or in a wheelchair, a play for sympathy that most observers dismissed as phony.

The ploy was futile.  Demjanjuk was finally convicted in 2011, although the court did not send him to prison, and he died in bed in 2012.  And Rashke ends his book with a pointed inquiry: “As a very young man captured by the Germans and facing a high probability of either starving to death, dying from overwork and disease, or being routinely executed, John Demjanjuk poses a final question to his accusers and critics. It is a question that goes to the heart of the human condition — a question that only an ordinary man like John ‘Iwan” Demjanjuk could ask: If you had been me in 1942, what would you have done?”

It’s an odd and inappropriate question to ask the Jewish reader.  No such option would have been available to us.  A Ukrainian might have the option of putting himself in service to his Nazi masters, but a Jew faced only death. For that reason, the question itself does not carry much moral weight.  But Rashke’s book forces us to consider whether a half-century of effort to punish those who operated the machinery of mass murder has resulted in any kind of justice.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.  His latest book, “The Short Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris,” was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in biography and was selected as a book of the year by the Washington Post.