the score with John Demjanjuk
by ANDREW COHEN
war-crimes suspect finds himself a target
again after 6 years of freedom. Neighbours
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
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
Criminal or casualty, soldier or
sadist, Ivan the Terrible or Ivan the
Innocent, Mr. Demjanjuk knows no
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
His U.S. citizenship has been revoked,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
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
Now, Ivan the Terrible is Ivan the
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
"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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Ms. Barnett, who has lived here for six
years, said people view Mr. Demjanjuk as
"the grandfatherly type" -- soft-spoken
"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
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
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
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.
"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
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
"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
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