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How America Became Safe Haven for Hitler's Men: Excerpt from 'Nazis Next Door' By Eric Lichtblau

By    |   Friday, 23 January 2015 03:27 PM

Excerpted from the book THE NAZIS NEXT DOOR: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men by Eric Lichtblau

Ivan the Terrible
November 17, 1993
Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Cincinnati, Ohio

For all the attacks that Pat Buchanan waged against them, the most damaging blow the Nazi hunters at the Justice Department would ever suffer was self-inflicted. The deep wounds it left would remain raw for years, after an ex-Nazi camp guard living outside Cleveland was nearly executed in 1993 for another man’s barbaric war crimes.

It all began with a seeming stroke of luck sixteen years earlier, in 1977, with a photo lineup at a warehouse outside Tel Aviv. An Israeli war crimes investigator was showing a Holocaust survivor named Eliyahu Rosenberg a photo album filled with snapshots of middle-aged men in suits and ties. Rosenberg, a warehouse manager, had escaped from the death camp at Treblinka thirty-four years earlier; the ghastly images of the place still haunted him. American prosecutors were hoping Rosenberg might be able to pick out the photo of a Connecticut factory worker, Feodor Fedorenko, who they knew had worked as a low-level Nazi guard at Treblinka. They knew that a solid eyewitness identification from a Treblinka survivor could make their case.

The warehouse manager leafed through the pages of the album. There were seventeen photos in all. Did he recognize anyone, the investigator asked? On the third page, Rosenberg stopped at the very last photo. Yes, that man looks very familiar, Rosenberg said. He didn’t remember his name, but he was a guard at Treblinka, he said. Just as prosecutors had hoped, the photo he picked was Feodor Fedorenko’s.

Then Rosenberg’s gaze turned back to the photo just before Fedorenko’s — photo 16. It was an intimidating-looking man with short hair, large ears, and a steely gaze. Rosenberg seemed paralyzed by the image staring back at him from the page. This man had been at Treblinka, too, Rosenberg told the interviewer, his tone disbelieving. His name was Ivan, and he was not just any guard. He worked the gas chamber. He was a monster, Rosenberg said; a man so feared and reviled he had acquired his own grim sobriquet. This was the man, Rosenberg said. This was Ivan the Terrible.

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There must be a mistake, the interviewer told him. Investigators thought the man in photo 16 might have been at another camp in Poland — at Sobibor — but not Treblinka. This man had never worked there, the interviewer said.

No, it was him, Rosenberg repeated. The man in the photo was Ivan the Terrible. Rosenberg was made to work every day just a few yards from him at the gas chamber, he said. He could never forget that face.

So began a torturous, thirty-five-year legal odyssey that would set off bitter battles in the United States, Israel, and Germany, call into question the ethics and competence of the Justice Department’s Nazi hunters, and threaten their very mission.

The man in the photograph that Rosenberg picked out was a fifty-six-year-old car mechanic at a Ford auto plant outside Cleveland. He was a Ukrainian immigrant who came to America seven years after the war. He lived with his wife and three children in a tidy suburban rambler, with a well-tended lawn and colorful flowerbeds. He was a regular at the local Ukrainian church. His name was John Demjanjuk.

Two other Treblinka survivors in Israel picked Demjanjuk’s photo out of the same album. Like Rosenberg, they identified him, with obvious agitation, as the man known in the camp as Ivan the Terrible. A muscular Ukrainian in his early twenties, Ivan was a man of almost mythic monstrosity, the survivors recounted: He would wield a sword and a lead pipe as he herded the prisoners to the gas chamber, cutting off men’s ears and slashing women’s breasts along the way. Sometimes he would force the prisoners, adults and children alike, to perform sex acts on each other before he and his partner, Nikolai, shoved them inside the gas chamber. Then he would walk down a flight of stairs to an engine room known as Ivan’s Area, where he would crank the diesel engine and pump the gas into the chamber until the prisoners’ screams turned deadly silent.

Demjanjuk (pronounced dem-YAHN-yuk) was no one of any great sig-nificance to American prosecutors before the Israeli survivors picked him out of the photo lineup. His name had surfaced in a book about the Nazi camps and on a list of reputed guards prepared by a Ukrainian immigrant in New York. But those accounts placed him not at Treblinka, where nearly nine hundred thousand people were killed, but at Sobibor, as a faceless Nazi guard of no particular note. American authorities were not actively investigating him. He was just one more mug shot in a photo album filled with Ukrainian immigrants who, based on random leads, might or might not have ties to the Nazis.

With eyewitnesses identifying him as a particularly notorious Nazi, however, Demjanjuk was now a much bigger target. American prosecutors had reason to suspect that he was not just a cog in the machine, but one of its most sadistic operators. The more evidence they gathered, the more confident they became. In all, eighteen Treblinka survivors, in addition to a German worker at the camp, ultimately picked out Demjanjuk’s photo as the man they knew as Ivan the Terrible. Another key piece of evidence came from the Soviets: a Nazi identification card with Demjanjuk’s name on it, beneath what looked like a photograph of him as a young man. The card placed him at the camps at Trawniki and at Sobibor, not at Treblinka, but at the very least, it seemed to confirm that this Cleveland autoworker had been a card-carrying Nazi guard.

Then there was the name itself. Demjanjuk had changed his first name to John when he came to the United States. His given name, investigators learned, was Ivan. Some of the Treblinka witnesses remembered the brutal Treblinka guard’s real last name as “Marchenko”; indeed, an Ivan Marchenko was listed as a guard at Treblinka in a document provided by Polish authorities. The investigators learned that Demjanjuk, in filling out his visa application to come to America, had listed his mother’s maiden name. It was Marchenko.

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To American authorities, the connections seemed too overwhelming to be written off as coincidence. Prosecutors at the Justice Department were convinced: John Demjanjuk and Ivan the Terrible were one and the same. “Prosecuting him, for all of us, became an obsession,” one prosecutor said.

On August 26, 1977, the Justice Department brought charges in Cleveland against John Demjanjuk alleging that he was Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka and seeking to strip him of his citizenship for war crimes. That evening, Demjanjuk returned to his home in suburban Cleveland and found a local newspaper reporter, Walt Bogdanich, waiting for him outside with a photographer. Demjanjuk’s daughters, one a teenager, the other in her midtwenties, were there too. Bogdanich asked to speak with Demjanjuk in private; this might not be easy for his children to hear, he explained. They could hear whatever he had to say, Demjanjuk insisted. Bogdanich told him that the Justice Department was trying to revoke his citizenship because of his reputed role as a Nazi guard at Treblinka. “I don’t know anything — what do you mean?” Demjanjuk asked in a voice of quiet alarm. Bogdanich began to explain what exactly the Justice Department was saying about him. His daughters were in tears as they listened to the reporter’s account. Their father was being labeled a Nazi — and not just any Nazi, but a particularly sadistic one known as Ivan the Terrible.

Demjanjuk finally interrupted the reporter. He had heard enough. “People say things. I don’t know anything,” he said. The photographer started to snap his picture. Demjanjuk stuck his hand out in front of the camera — striking the familiar pose of an accused man trying to avoid the spotlight.

The next day, desperate to clear his name, Demjanjuk agreed to speak with a Cleveland television crew at his home. He was a German prisoner of war, not a camp guard, he insisted in his fractured English. His wife, Vera, sitting next to him on the living room couch, broke in to declare his innocence as well. “Is not true! Is not true! Is not true!” she screamed at the camera. Then she slumped silently against her husband’s shoulder. She had fainted. The interview was cut short and an ambulance was called.

Demjanjuk was suddenly big news, not just in Cleveland, but around the country. “Ohioan Is Called Nazi War Criminal,” read the headline in the New York Times. Just as prosecutors were beginning to move more aggressively against suspected Nazis after decades of indifference, they now had in their sights a man of monstrous savagery who seemed to put a bald and bespectacled face on Nazi evil. If Adolf Eichmann was the brutally efficient architect of Hitler’s Final Solution, then Ivan the Terrible, living in Cleveland, Ohio, was the barbaric executioner, a sadist who corralled women and children in the gas chamber, beating and torturing them as they went.

With Demjanjuk’s visibility now so high, prosecutors faced intense political pressures not to repeat the kind of legal missteps that had riddled Nazi prosecutions for years. On the House immigration committee, Congressman Joshua Eilberg made clear that he wanted the Justice Department to throw everything it had at deporting Demjanjuk. “We cannot afford the risk of losing another decision,” he wrote to the attorney general regarding Demjanjuk.

With the Justice Department’s aggressive new Nazi office grabbing hold of the case, prosecutors were confident that there would be no slip-ups. Allan Ryan, for his part, had no doubts. As the case moved toward a trial in 1980, he laid Demjanjuk’s Nazi identification card side by side with the photo a decade later from Demjanjuk’s U.S. visa application. The similarities were striking. Beyond the photos, prosecutors had eyewitnesses — Holocaust survivors — who were ready to place Demjanjuk at Treblinka, running the gas chamber where hundreds of thousands were killed. They would no doubt make sympathetic witnesses. The case appeared airtight.

You son of a bitch, Ryan thought to himself as he studied the photos. We’ve got you.
But doubts about the case were already beginning to emerge, even within the Justice Department.

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One of the prosecutors on the case, George Parker, couldn’t get past one nagging question: How could Demjanjuk have been in two places at once? The Nazi identification card from the Soviets showed Demjanjuk as a nondescript, rank-and-file guard at Sobibor beginning in 1942, but the eyewitness accounts from the survivors identifying him as Ivan the Terrible placed him about a hundred miles away at Treblinka during essentially that same time period. One or the other could be true, Parker believed, but not both. “Demjanjuk could not have been Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka as well as the Demjanjuk known to [another witness] at Sobibor,” he wrote to his bosses, Ryan and Rockler, in a long memo.

Parker had “gnawing doubts” about the veracity of the case against Demjanjuk and about the ethical cloud hovering over prosecutors if they moved ahead anyway, he wrote. No one doubted the sincerity of the Israeli survivors in picking out Demjanjuk’s photo, but they were being asked to remember traumatic events nearly forty years earlier, and eyewitnesses to Nazi crimes had been wrong before. Parker believed that Demjanjuk probably was a Nazi guard at a death camp — just not the infamous guard the prosecutors thought he was, and not at the same camp where they thought he worked. In a line that would prove prophetic, Parker warned his supervisors that “we may have the right man for the wrong act.”

Parker proposed “radical surgery” to salvage the prosecution. Instead, the Justice Department went ahead with the case largely unchanged, tinkering with a few elements but holding steady on the central claim that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible. Parker quit the Justice Department in frustration. He was now convinced that Demjanjuk was not the larger-than-life murderer that the Justice Department thought he was, and he did not want to put his own legal career at risk.

A year later, Demjanjuk went on trial in Cleveland. Five survivors from Treblinka were flown in from Israel to testify. One of them was Eliyahu Rosenberg, the man who had first identified Demjanjuk’s photo for the war crimes investigators at his warehouse outside Tel Aviv four years earlier.

Testifying in Hebrew through a translator, Rosenberg explained to the dead-quiet courtroom how he was forced to watch Ivan’s savagery every day. The Nazis had stationed Rosenberg outside the gas chamber to remove the corpses of the victims once Ivan was done with them, he said. Ivan would always have a weapon of some sort as he and his partner, Nikolai, herded prisoners into the gas chamber, Rosenberg testified. “He had a pipe, a sword, a whip, and he tortured the victims with this before they entered the gas chambers, especially the women. He cut pieces between their legs. I saw this with my very eyes.” Such acts of brutality, he said, “happened every day.”

Rosenberg couldn’t go on. He broke into sobs, with his head bowed and his body shaking as he sat silently on the witness stand. The memory of that place was too much for him. After a minute, he lifted his head, took a deep breath, and somehow kept going. The prosecutor showed him a batch of photographs and asked if he recognized the accused. Just as he had done four years earlier in Tel Aviv, he picked out one man from the group and identified him as “Iwan,” the Ukrainian derivation of “Ivan.” “Iwan was there, younger, he was thinner, the way he was in Treblinka,” Rosenberg said, pointing to the photo. It was John Demjanjuk’s visa photo from 1951.

Excerpted from THE NAZIS NEXT DOOR: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men by Eric Lichtblau. Copyright © 2014 by Eric Lichtblau. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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For all the attacks that Pat Buchanan waged against them, the most damaging blow the Nazi hunters at the Justice Department would ever suffer was self-inflicted.
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Friday, 23 January 2015 03:27 PM
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