Israel Convicts Demjanjuk of Nazi War Crimes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Demjanjuk’s trial for atrocities committed at the Treblinka extermination camp continued the Nuremberg precedent of holding Nazi war criminals accountable for their violations of human rights.

Summary of Event

During World War II, the Nazi German government implemented a calculated policy of genocide and killed millions of human beings. Holocaust Although victims included persons from many political and religious groups and numerous nationalities, Jews, Gypsies, and persons with disabilities were the primary victims of the Nazi genocide. To accomplish their ends, the Nazis constructed killing centers and perfected an assembly-line approach to mass murder. War crimes trials;World War II Treblinka death camp Nazi war crimes Ivan the Terrible (Nazi war criminal) [kw]Israel Convicts Demjanjuk of Nazi War Crimes (Apr. 18, 1988) [kw]Demjanjuk of Nazi War Crimes, Israel Convicts (Apr. 18, 1988) [kw]Nazi War Crimes, Israel Convicts Demjanjuk of (Apr. 18, 1988) [kw]War Crimes, Israel Convicts Demjanjuk of Nazi (Apr. 18, 1988) [kw]Crimes, Israel Convicts Demjanjuk of Nazi War (Apr. 18, 1988) War crimes trials;World War II Treblinka death camp Nazi war crimes Ivan the Terrible (Nazi war criminal) [g]Middle East;Apr. 18, 1988: Israel Convicts Demjanjuk of Nazi War Crimes[06780] [g]Israel;Apr. 18, 1988: Israel Convicts Demjanjuk of Nazi War Crimes[06780] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Apr. 18, 1988: Israel Convicts Demjanjuk of Nazi War Crimes[06780] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 18, 1988: Israel Convicts Demjanjuk of Nazi War Crimes[06780] Demjanjuk, John Eichmann, Adolf Brunner, Alois

The Treblinka extermination camp, which figured prominently in the trial of John Demjanjuk, as it did in many Nazi war crimes trials, was one such killing center. One of the three camps of Operation Reinhard Operation Reinhard (the other two were Belżec and Sobibór) in eastern Poland, Treblinka opened in July, 1942. A revolt in August, 1943, destroyed parts of the camp, and the Germans closed it in November, 1943. Treblinka, like the other two camps of Operation Reinhard, served only the purpose of mass murder. Every man, woman, and child arriving there was to be killed. Most were Jews; a few were Gypsies. Some of the younger men and women were not killed immediately; they were forced to serve the Nazis by sorting the belongings of those who had been murdered and by burning the bodies after any gold fillings had been extracted from the victims’ teeth. Eventually, they, too, were killed. Only a handful of Treblinka prisoners who had escaped during the uprising survived to testify to what happened there. The number of people killed at the Treblinka camp has been estimated to be between 700,000 and 900,000.

The method of murder was relatively simple. The victims arrived by train, mostly in cattle cars. They were driven from the cars, and the men were separated from the women. They were forced to undress and to surrender all their valuables. Those too old or too infirm to walk rapidly were shot, and their bodies were dropped into a ditch, where a continuous fire consumed them. The others were driven naked toward the gas chamber facility, a large building whose interior was divided into chambers disguised as shower rooms. They were forced into the gas chambers, the doors were sealed, and carbon monoxide from a diesel motor was pumped into the chambers.

The Treblinka killing center employed a small staff. About twenty-five to thirty Germans, dressed in the uniform of the SS (Schutzstaffel), SS (Schutzstaffel) the elite German security unit, supervised all operations. They were supported by approximately one hundred Ukrainian auxiliaries (Soviet prisoners of war recruited and trained by the SS), without whose help the killing machine could not have been operated. A fluctuating number of Jewish prisoners, approximately five hundred to one thousand, performed all the necessary physical labor.

Demjanjuk was one of the SS auxiliaries at Treblinka. Born Ivan Demjanjuk in the Soviet Ukraine, he was drafted into the Soviet army in 1940. He was wounded but returned to active duty until he was captured by the Germans in May, 1942. He volunteered for and received training as an SS auxiliary at Trawniki, Poland. He was then posted to the extermination camps of Operation Reinhard and served at Treblinka until the camp closed in 1943.

After the war, Demjanjuk found refuge in camps for displaced persons. In 1948, he applied for official status as a displaced person (DP), and in 1951 he applied for an American immigration visa. He was ineligible for either because the operative definition of a displaced person given by the International Refugee Organization, later adopted by the U.S. Congress, specifically denied DP status to Nazi war criminals, but Demjanjuk obtained both DP status and his American visa by lying about his wartime occupation. He entered the United States in February, 1952, settled in Cleveland, and became an autoworker. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1958.

In the United States, criminal charges could not be brought against Demjanjuk when his past became known because American courts have no jurisdiction to try persons who commit murder abroad. American law does require the denaturalization of those who lied in order to gain entry and citizenship, however, and also requires the deportation of those denaturalized if they had assisted Nazi Germany in persecuting civilians. In 1977, the U.S. government instituted denaturalization proceedings against Demjanjuk, alleging that he was the SS auxiliary at Treblinka, known to the Jewish inmates as Ivan the Terrible, who had operated the diesel motor that fed lethal carbon monoxide into the Treblinka gas chambers and who had tormented, tortured, and shot Treblinka inmates. Demjanjuk denied that he had ever been at Trawniki or Treblinka. The government produced documents, expert witnesses, and Treblinka survivors to prove its allegations.

The U.S. government’s most important piece of evidence, in addition to the eyewitness identifications made by former Treblinka inmates and a former German Treblinka staff member, was Demjanjuk’s Trawniki identity card. This card showed Demjanjuk’s picture and signature and provided his name, nationality, family history, and information on such personal characteristics as a shrapnel scar on his back, the color of his hair and eyes, and the date of his birth, all of which matched the relevant information on Demjanjuk’s visa application. The authenticity of the Trawniki card was certified by an expert forensic documents examiner. In addition, a historian testified that the information on the Trawniki card conformed to the known facts of SS administration in occupied Poland.

John Demjanjuk exits the federal courthouse in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1983.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Unable to deny that he was the man in the Trawniki photograph or that the personal data were accurate, Demjanjuk seized on the fact that the Trawniki card had been obtained from Soviet archives to claim that it was a forgery created by the KGB. He produced no credible reason that he might have been singled out for persecution by the Soviet government and no evidence to support the forgery claim, nor could he produce a plausible, or indeed even consistent, alternative explanation of his whereabouts and activities during the war.

The federal district court found the government’s case to be persuasive, and in June, 1981, it revoked Demjanjuk’s citizenship. The decision was upheld on appeal, and the government instituted deportation proceedings against Demjanjuk. In May, 1984, an immigration judge concluded that Demjanjuk was deportable because he had assisted Nazi Germany in persecuting civilians and ordered him deported to the Soviet Union; that decision was also upheld on appeal.

In October, 1983, during the deportation proceedings but before Demjanjuk was ordered deported, Israel charged Demjanjuk with murder and other offenses in violation of its 1950 Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Law and requested his extradition. The U.S. government sought and received a certificate of extraditability from a federal district court, and on February 27, 1986, U.S. marshals took Demjanjuk to Israel and turned him over to the proper authorities. On September 29, 1986, the government of Israel filed a twenty-four-page indictment charging Demjanjuk with having committed crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes against persecuted persons.

The trial began on February 16, 1987, before a three-judge district court in Jerusalem. The Israeli prosecutors relied on documentary evidence, expert witnesses, and the testimony of Treblinka survivors. The principal documentary evidence was again the Trawniki card, once again authenticated by documents experts. A forensic anthropologist compared the photo appearing on the Trawniki card with a photo of Demjanjuk in prison and concluded that the two photos were of the same person. Historians testified about the Holocaust, Operation Reinhard and Treblinka, and the administrative procedures used by the Germans. The Treblinka survivors testified about their personal experiences at the camp, identified Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible, and recounted his specific acts of cruelty. As in the American proceedings, Demjanjuk relied largely on his own denial that he had ever been at Trawniki or Treblinka and the contention that the Trawniki card was a KGB forgery. Again Demjanjuk failed to offer credible evidence to refute the prosecution’s case.

On April 18, 1988, after a fifteen-month trial, the court returned its verdict. For ten hours the judges read excerpts from their four-hundred-page opinion, reviewing, summarizing, and analyzing the documents and the testimony that led the court to find Demjanjuk guilty. The following week, the judges sentenced Demjanjuk to death. Demjanjuk appealed to the Supreme Court of Israel, and that court heard Demjanjuk’s appeal beginning in 1991. The appeal gained strength when, on June 5, 1992, a U.S. federal appeals court in Cincinnati, Ohio, ordered a reopening of the case involving Demjanjuk’s extradition from the United States. The appeals court in Ohio asked to hear more evidence because of the possibility that the extradition order had been based on erroneous information.

During 1993, both the Israeli Supreme Court and U.S. courts expressed doubts that Demjanjuk and Ivan the Terrible were one and the same. The Israeli high court overturned the lower court’s decision, ruling that insufficient evidence was presented to prove Demjanjuk’s identity, and in September, 1993, Demjanjuk returned to the United States. In 1998, the decision to strip Demjanjuk of his citizenship was overturned. However, in May, 1999, the U.S. Justice Department alleged that Demjanjuk was a guard at Nazi death camps, and his citizenship was revoked for a second time in February, 2002; the decision was upheld on appeal. In December, 2005, a federal court ordered Demjanjuk deported to Ukraine; this decision was upheld by the Board of Immigration Appeals in December, 2006.

Significance

Israel has not been the major forum for the trials of Nazi war criminals. Demjanjuk was only the second non-Israeli tried under the Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Law. The first, Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer who had been in charge of deporting Jews to extermination camps in Eastern Europe, was tried in the early 1960’s. Most Nazi war criminals have been tried in a large variety of international and domestic tribunals.

After World War II, the Allies established the International Military Tribunal Nuremberg Trials at Nuremberg to prosecute top-ranking German Nazis. In addition, each of the Allied Powers tried Nazi war criminals in its zone of occupation and extradited others to countries formerly occupied by Germany in which the crimes had been committed. Further, Austria and the two German states continued to prosecute Nazi war criminals.

By the 1950’s, concern about Nazi crimes had waned, and many Nazis escaped trial. By the late 1970’s, however, indifference to the Holocaust changed to renewed concern, and governments began to seek those perpetrators of Nazi crimes who had not been brought to justice. Some countries (Canada, Australia, and Great Britain, for example) made Nazi war crimes punishable under their domestic laws. The United States, in contrast, has relied on civil rather than criminal proceedings. It has sought to denaturalize those Nazi war criminals who entered the country illegally and then to deport or, on occasion, to extradite them. The legal road to Demjanjuk’s Israeli trial for war crimes began in Cleveland, Ohio, in a civil denaturalization proceeding.

Demjanjuk’s Israeli trial, like the trials of Nazis in other forums, was a reminder to those war criminals still at large that they, too, could still be called to account. Under the Nuremberg precedent, international tribunals can be established to try war criminals. Moreover, under international law, every country has universal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes, even if those crimes were not committed on their territory or against their citizens. As Demjanjuk’s trial illustrates, there is no statute of limitations for crimes such as those committed at Treblinka. The prosecution of Demjanjuk represented another step in the development of an international system of justice designed to address crimes that offend norms of civilized behavior. War crimes trials;World War II Treblinka death camp Nazi war crimes Ivan the Terrible (Nazi war criminal)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. 1963. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Brilliant polemical essay on the Jerusalem trial, first published in The New Yorker. Presents a penetrating analysis of Eichmann as the technician of mass murder and a perceptive, and highly controversial, analysis of the Jewish leadership as unwilling instruments of the Nazi extermination program. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedlander, Henry, and Earlean McCarrick. “The Extradition of Nazi Criminals: Ryan, Artukovic, Demjanjuk.” Simon Wiesenthal Center Annual 4 (1987): 65-98. Provides an account and analysis of the three cases in which the United States extradited war criminals to West Germany, Yugoslavia, and Israel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. 3d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Classic account based on an exhaustive study of the Nuremberg evidence and of the German documents captured by the Allies. Describes the processes and dynamics of the conception and execution of the Nazi program of extermination. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reitlinger, Gerald. The Final Solution: The Attempt to Exterminate the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945. New York: Beechhurst, 1953. This earliest comprehensive account to be published after the war remains one of the best general histories of the events of the Holocaust. Based on the Nuremberg evidence, it provides a description of the Nazi program of extermination and a detailed account of its country-by-country implementation. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenbaum, Alan S. Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993. Discusses the moral reasons surrounding efforts to prosecute such Nazi war ciminals as John Demjanjuk, Adolf Eichmann, and Alois Brunner. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ryan, Allan A., Jr. Quiet Neighbors: Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals in America. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. Authoritative popular history by the former director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigation describes the illegal postwar immigration of Nazi war criminals to the United States and efforts to denaturalize and deport them. Also discusses the negotiations between American prosecutors and Soviet authorities that made Soviet legal assistance in war crimes cases possible. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharfman, Glenn R. “The Jewish Community’s Reactions to the John Demjanjuk Trials.” Historian 63, no. 1 (2000): 17-34. Discusses the varying ways in which Jews, particularly American Jews, responded to the prosecution of Demjanjuk. Examines the relationship between individuals’ reactions and their national and religious identities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Teicholz, Tom. The Trial of Ivan the Terrible: State of Israel v. John Demjanjuk. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Accessible account of the Israeli trial by a journalist who is also a lawyer. Provides an overview of the American denaturalization, deportation, and extradition proceedings against Demjanjuk. Includes select bibliography and index as well as a list of the witnesses who testified in Jerusalem.

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