The Case of John Demjanjuk: Nazi Guard, Sick Old Man or Both?

By in Cleveland

German prosecutors believe that John Demjanjuk was a sadistic guard at the notorious death camp Sobibor. They would like to put him on trial in Munich, but his family says the 88 year old is too old and frail to be extradited -- and that he is innocent anyway.

The wife of the alleged concentration camp guard is petite and rather friendly. She's wearing a blue-green checkered blouse, and her long hair is pulled back in a bun. Standing there at the door of her yellow farmhouse in Seven Hills, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, she seems a bit lost.

Vera Demjanjuk speaks a mishmash of German and English. She looks exhausted as she explains that everything is starting over again and that, once again, she will have to fear for the fate of her 88-year-old husband, John. Her family, she says, has neither the energy nor the means for a new court case, especially not in far-off Germany. "We are poor and have no money," she says.

It was 1977 when American Nazi hunters first set their sights on her husband. At that time, the retired Ford auto worker was stripped of his US citizenship and extradited to Israel. The Israelis wanted to hang him. They accused him of being "Ivan the Terrible," the barbarous operator of the gas chambers at the Treblinka concentration camp.

'A Sick Old Man'

In 1993, though, the Israelis released him after it became clear that "Ivan the Terrible" was likely someone else. Demjanjuk was allowed to return to the US. Since then, though, more and more clues have surfaced indicating that Demjanjuk may actually have been a guard at the Sobibor death camp in present-day Poland. Prosecutors in Munich want him to stand trial in Germany. They allege that he took part in the murder of 29,000 people.

Demjanjuk is stateless. Last May, the US Supreme Court refused to hear his final appeal. Nothing now stands in the way of Demjanjuk's being extradited to Germany at any time to face the new charges.

Experts from the Bavarian State Office of Criminal Investigation have just recently verified the validity of Demjanjuk's ID, which puts him in Sobibor during the period when the crimes took place. Their finding marks an important step in the effort to try him in Germany.

But there is a potential hitch: Is the 88-year-old physically capable of standing trial? Demjanjuk's son, John Demjanjuk Jr., has said that his father is "very frail." His father reportedly suffers from a "blood and bone marrow disorder," which forces him to go to the hospital several times a month for regular blood transfusions. During the last year, his son adds, Demjanjuk's condition has worsened so much that he fears his father couldn't make it through a trial.

John Jr. says that, were his father extradited to Germany, he would "have to have medical care every step along the way." Even Demjanjuk's lawyer, John Broadley, says that his client is "a sick old man." The family, though, has been saying the same thing for decades. He has even appeared in court in a wheelchair.

'As Strong As an Ox'

Nine years ago, Jonathan Drimmer was part of the US Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations when he helped lead the government's successful efforts to strip Demjanjuk of his citizenship. "At that time, he was still a giant guy," Drimmer says, adding that he was tall, broad-shouldered and had huge hands. At the time, Demjanjuk was able to testify for an entire day. "By the end of it, I was exhausted and he was still going strong. He was as strong as an ox back in 2000," Drimmer recounts.

Nowadays, Demjanjuk looks like the 88-year-old he is, says his neighbor Erik Keller, a young graphic designer, who chats with Demjanjuk often. According to Keller, Demjanjuk's bad knees won't allow him to stand or walk for long periods. Keller adds, though, that after a recent snowstorm Demjanjuk was scraping his driveway. Keller says he helped Demjanjuk clear his walkway -- and says he has never seen him in a wheelchair.

Keller goes on to say how Demjanjuk spends his summers in jeans and a sweatshirt tending to his large vegetable garden. And sometimes his wife Vera even stops by to give him some tomatoes. "They're very neighborly," Keller says, adding that Demjanjuk was proud of his garden and speaks often about his days working at Ford.

But, says Keller, Demjanjuk never talks about anything that happened before that. And Keller has never asked. As Keller sees it, Demjanjuk enjoys a little neighborly chit-chat, but "he doesn't talk to a lot of people."

Dreams and Nightmares

While most of the neighbors' mailboxes have big numbers on them, those on the Demjanjuks' are small. In front of the house, there is a big sign that says: "No Trespassing." The single-family residence has an attached garage, a greenhouse and a big outdoor garden. It's in better condition than most of the other houses on the street -- despite the fact that losing his citizenship also meant losing his state retirement benefits, which forces Demjanjuk to live off support from his children.

Seven Hills is a suburb of Cleveland, formerly a booming industrial city but now one of the poorest large cities in America. Not long after World War II, this neighborhood -- with its low-slung houses made of brick and wood -- was part of the American dream.

But, today, it is also part of a nightmare. Garage doors are locked shut, shades are pulled and the mailboxes are covered in rust. The streets are empty of people, and a good 20 minutes can go by before a car drives down the street. Seven Hills is as good as dead. Only the sound of highway traffic can be heard in the distance.

'My Father Has Never Killed Anyone '

John Demjanjuk Jr. says that his father doesn't seem concerned about the discussion in Germany. "He is really concerned more with his health and staying alive for the last few years that he has remaining," John Jr. says. As he sees it, there is "absolutely no case to convict my father of anything in a criminal trial."

The son has made protecting his father his life's labor. "My dad never killed anybody in his life," John Jr. says. "There's no evidence to say that he was personally involved in killing anybody in his life." John Jr. continues: "He isn't a murderer. He is a very gentle, kind person. I know my dad and I know in my heart that he did not kill anyone. He was a Red Army soldier who was caught up in what was happening in World War II."

John Jr. says that he believes his father is innocent and that this knowledge has given him the strength to fight for his father through the years. He calls the crimes of the Holocaust "horrific" -- but says that "that's not what it is about."

Contesting the Evidence

But, in the minds of American and German prosecutors, that is the point. Seven water-tight pieces of evidence substantiate that Demjanjuk served in the Sobibor concentration camp, says Drimmer, the former prosecutor. Seven different documents from different archives and agencies. As Drimmer sees it, this makes it very unlikely that there has been a mistake and very unlikely that someone could be trying to frame Demjanjuk. Still, 63 years after the end of the war, it doesn't mean that Demjanjuk will be put on trial.

John Jr. doesn't have a plausible explanation for how these bits of evidence incriminating his allegedly innocent father could have found their way into court papers. But he says that the burden of proof in a German criminal case is much higher than in the American case which focused on stripping him of his citizenship. He also says that Germany doesn't have a single living eyewitness. And, of course, he points out that his father is too ill to stand trial anyway.

But if you ask him what might really have happened in his father's past, he doesn't have an answer.

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