The Tangled Trials of John Demjanjuk

Lawrence Douglas’s The Right Wrong Man centers on the extraordinary case of John Demjanjuk: twice stripped of US citizenship and deported to face trial for crimes against humanity; sentenced to death in Israel, but freed when mistaken identity was proven; then convicted a second time in a German court as accessory to the murder of 28,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp. Demjanjuk’s case provides a prism through which Douglas explores the challenges faced in establishing a legal framework within which to try those responsible for the Holocaust. Even in outline, the tangled succession of legal proceedings that continued for the last thirty-five years of Demjanjuk’s long life is fascinating and thought-provoking.

Iwan Demjanjuk was born in 1920 in the Ukraine. Drafted into the Red Army in 1941, he was taken as a prisoner of war in the Battle of the Kerch. Rather than imprisonment, he took the option of working for his captors as a camp guard, serving at Majdanek, Sobibor, and Flossenbürg. The end of the war found him in Germany, one of the millions left homeless or stateless. He was granted a visa under the Displaced Persons program and arrived in the US in 1952. In 1958, he became a naturalized citizen and changed his name to John.

Trawniki ID card for John Demjanjuk

Demjanjuk’s ID card from Trawniki, the SS training facility for volunteer guards.
Demjanjuk’s defense claimed it was a KGB forgery.
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Demjanjuk’s troubles began in 1975 when his name appeared on a (Soviet sourced) list of 70 Ukrainians guilty of war crimes living in the US. The INS decided to pursue denaturalization on the basis that he had lied on his visa application in claiming no involvement with the Nazi camps. Matters became more complicated when no fewer than ten survivors from the Treblinka death camp identified his picture as that of the notoriously sadistic and brutal camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible. He was denaturalized in 1981, and deportation proceedings followed. While his appeals against deportation went through the US courts, Israel filed for extradition so that Demjanjuk could face trial in Jerusalem. In 1986 he was extradited – by then four of the eyewitnesses who had linked him with Treblinka had passed away.

His trial in Israel was a public event on the scale of Eichmann’s trial in 1961. Despite moments of high courtroom drama, Demjanjuk maintained his innocence, confident in the knowledge that he had never been to Treblinka, could not be Ivan the Terrible. Nevertheless, on April 18th 1988 he was convicted and sentenced to execution. More than five years later his sentence was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court on the basis of documents newly discovered in the Soviet archives that indicated that another Iwan, Iwan Marchenko, had run the Treblinka gas chambers. Demjanjuk was granted re-entry to the US, and the order of denaturalization vacated.

Unfortunately for Demjanjuk, the Soviet archival documents that had saved his life clearly linked him to the three camps at which he had worked. Moreover, despite strong criticism of the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) that had prepared the original case for denaturalization, Judge Matia had vacated his denaturalization order “without prejudice”, allowing fresh proceedings to be brought. This the OSI duly did. In 2002 Demjanjuk was again stripped of US citizenship and deportation proceedings followed in 2004.

However it was not until 2009 that a country willing to take the deportee was found – on March 10th, 2009, German courts issued a warrant for his arrest, and in November Demjanjuk’s final trial began in Munich. The German court concluded that as a guard at Sobibor Demjanjuk had necessarily been involved in the murder of 28,060 people and sentenced him to five years imprisonment. In 2012, still awaiting appeal of the German verdict, Demjanjuk died in a nursing home in Bavaria. Demjanjuk never admitted any guilt or culpability, claiming to the very end that he was the wrong man.

An award-winning novelist as well as legal scholar, Douglas offers a compulsively readable history of Demjanjuk’s bizarre case. The Right Wrong Man is both a gripping eyewitness account of the last major Holocaust trial to galvanize world attention and a vital meditation on the law’s effort to bring legal closure to the most horrific chapter in modern history.