5 Dec 2022

Ivan the Terrible

This week I watched a Netflix documentary, “The Devil Next Door.” It presented the story of a Cleveland auto worker accused of being the infamous Treblinka guard known as Ivan the Terrible. John Demjanjuk, ostensibly a Ukrainian refugee/immigrant after World War 2, had been a quiet, unassuming employee at the Ford plant in Cleveland—a model husband, father, and grandfather.

In 1986, Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel and stood trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang, but later (dubious?) evidence from the crumbling Soviet Union saved Demjanjuk. He was later stripped of his American citizenship and extradited to Germany, of all places. He died in prison before he could technically, legally, be convicted. Demjanjuk was 91.

As a journalist, I watched the documentary with an open mind. It resembled a heavyweight fight, as both sides traded punches and at any given time, one could be persuaded of his guilt, or consider there was reasonable doubt. In the end (watch it for yourself), I concluded he was Ivan. A very interesting notation on his immigration papers seemed to show that Demjanjuk identified himself as “Ivan Marchenko.” I also felt that relying on a KGB officer was almost laughable, as the KGB files identified another man as Ivan, however as I said, that testimony saved Demjanjuk’s life.

The passage of time, disagreement over a worker’s camp card, and frankly motivations of both sides made this story a bit murkier than you’d like.

Both sides made mistakes at trial. The prosecutor, Michael Shaked, got caught offguard when one compelling witness later appeared to suffer some dementia, thus throwing his identification of Demjanjuk into question. Conversely, the odd defense attorney, Yoram Sheftel, was off-putting for his enjoyment of the whole scene. He even admitted that he loved the spotlight, a very bad look for such a solemn proceeding. Sheftel also made points by mocking the prosecution’s reliance on Soviet records, yet later embraced the same type of evidence from…the KGB officer!

Overall a very weird story. It was also supremely tragic and horrific. Ivan the Terrible was an unusually sadistic madman, which is saying something in that Nazi crowd. In the end, it was proven that Demjanjuk was a guard at nearby Sobibor, and at the time of his death he had been charged as an accessory in 27,000 murders.

This was the most disturbing aspect of Demjanjuk’s story; he denied any knowledge of murders and basically claimed to be a completely innocent bystander of war, himself an innocent victim. It wasn’t credible. Of course, in order to play all this out, he had to claim complete innocence. It wouldn’t do to admit that, yes, he had been a guard, but blah, blah, blah.

He died never having admitted any complicity whatsoever. That Israel’s Supreme Court let him go after the KGB evidence came forward made the emotional pain in Israel all the more gut-wrenching. Sheftel was considered a traitor by his own people and I’m surprised he’s still around.

Demjanjuk was the biggest villain to be tried in Israel since the inhuman Adolph Eichmann in 1961. The court testimony was chilling.

I mention all this because my real takeaway from it all was much broader than just a retired autoworker from Cleveland, Ohio. I paid close attention to both his neighbors and family’s views of it all, as well as the German people.

It was a reminder that anti-Semitism is alive and well, unfortunately. Now, it is obvious that a man’s family will fight for him. The Demjanjuk family never wavered, particularly the son-in-law. Neighbors closed ranks around them. And the broader “Ukrainian-American” community in Cleveland behaved very much like the shadowy Odessa group that shielded Nazi war criminals in the years after the war. They either were silent, or made it known that they were afraid further inquiries about war criminals might implicate more in the community. All in all, this particular group was, shall we say, unsympathetic to the victims of the Holocaust.


At the end of the day, we are confronted with the same problem that has always existed: a lot of people hate Jews. In light of the insane comments from Kanye West this week—in which he lauded Hitler during an interview with the discredited Alex Jones—I am dismayed by the Jew-hatred that clearly exists even in America (long a haven for Jews).

Whoever he was, John Demjanjuk went to meet his Maker. As we all will.

When I meet mine, I will not have to tell Him why I hated the Jews.