July 29, 1993: Acquitted By Israel (John Demjanjuk, War Criminal or Victim?)

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A Brief History

On July 29, 1993, Ukrainian-American retired auto worker, John Demjanjuk, was finally acquitted by the Supreme Court of Israel and was a free man.  Or was he?

Digging Deeper

The long sad story began when Demjanjuk was born in the Ukraine in 1920.  Life was normal (which in the 1930’s Ukraine was starvation during Stalin’s famine) until World War II when he was drafted into the Red Army of the Soviet Union.  Captured by the Germans, he finished the war as a POW under horrible conditions.  

This moment is where the story hit’s a snag.  According to Nazi hunters, Demjanjuk served as a “death camp” guard known as “Ivan the Terrible” at Treblinka, a Nazi concentration camp.  Ivan the Terrible was known as a brutal guard that engaged in murder and mistreatment of prisoners, taking sadistic pleasure in acts of savage cruelty.

In either case, Demjanjuk emigrated to the US in 1952 and began a new life as an autoworker in suburban Cleveland, Ohio where he worked and lived a normal life.  Things unraveled in 1977 when Demjanjuk was accused of having entered the US illegally for failing to report his work as a concentration camp guard.  Of course, he denied this, but he was deported to Israel for war crimes trial in 1986.

Convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death in 1988, Demjanjuk continued to protest his innocence and appealed the verdict.  Under suspicious circumstances, the Israeli lawyer that filed Demjanjuk’s appeal fell from a 20th floor window to his death, which was ruled a suicide although there was no note and no indication that the attorney had wanted to kill himself.  In 1993, the Supreme Court of Israel overturned the verdict, finding that the prosecution had hidden evidence that would exonerate Demjanjuk!  Russia was found to have supplied fabricated evidence against him as well.  The Russians had provided forged ID cards and documents, easily proven to be false.  Also, a key witness was found to be lying.  Demjanjuk was freed and returned to a relieved family in Ohio, but was besieged by protestors claiming he was guilty.  A US court also found that American prosecutors had also been victimized by fraud in proceedings against him in the US.

In 2001, the story changed as Demjanjuk was now accused of having been a sadistic guard at Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenburg.  It seemed the US State Department and Nazi hunters were out to get him no matter what.  In 2009 he was once again deported, this time to Germany, and he again stood trial and again professed his innocence.  Convicted of being an accessory to the murder of thousands of Jews at Sobibor in 2011, Demjanjuk again appealed but died before his appeal could be heard.  Under German law, the conviction was thrown out because of the unresolved appeal and Demjanjuk lies buried with a clean criminal record.

Was Ivan (John) Demjanjuk a deranged murderous war criminal, or a normal immigrant grandfather victimized by World War II and a publicity hungry anti-Nazi witch hunt?  While we at History and Headlines have no tolerance for perpetrators of war crimes, we also believe in due process of law, and that process seems to exonerate Demjanjuk, or at least provide reasonable doubt. 

Question for students (and subscribers):  What do you think?  Is he really guilty?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please read…

Teicholz, Tom.  The Trial of Ivan the Terrible: State of Israel Vs. John Demjanjuk.  St Martins Pr, 1990.

The featured image in this article, a Trawniki ID card bearing Demjanjuk’s name which trial experts said appeared to be authentic, is in the public domain according to German copyright law, because it is part of a statute, ordinance, official decree or judgment (official work) issued by a German authority or court (§ 5 Abs.1 UrhG).  This file is a Ukrainian or Ukrainian SSR work and it is presently in the public domain in Ukraine, because it was published before January 1, 1951, and the creator (if known) died before that date (details). (This is the effect of the retroactive Ukrainian copyright law of 1993 and the copyright term extension from 50 to 70 years in 2001.)


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.