JERUSALEM — JOHN DEMJANJUK is a free man. In a surprise verdict yesterday, the Israeli Supreme Court acquitted on appeal the man who had been convicted and sentenced to death in April 1988 as being "Ivan the Terrible," the brutal operator of the Nazi gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp.
Surrounded by policemen, Mr. Demjanjuk, a former Cleveland auto worker, sat impassively as Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar read the court's conclusions. He did not look at the packed courtroom where members of his family sat close to Holocaust survivors. And he expressed no emotion over the verdict.
According to one Israeli radio commentator, the verdict was a "masterful display of walking a tight rope."
The court is convinced that Demjanjuk was a "Wachman," a Soviet prisoner of war (POW) who volunteered and was trained by the Nazis to work in concentration camps. His presence in at least one of the camps, Sobibor, has been established, and the court has proof that he had been active in the killing of Jews. It said, however, that there are "reasonable doubts" about his identity as Ivan the Terrible.
Since the bulk of the evidence during the initial trial was related to Treblinka, the Supreme Court determined that Demjanjuk did not have "a reasonable opportunity to defend himself against the alternative indictment relating to Sobibor...." Lawyer Zvi Firon called the verdict "a rare case where a defendant is legally acquitted and morally guilty."
Demjanjuk, who became a United States citizen in 1958, had been under investigation in the US since 1976 for false information given during his naturalization process. He maintains that he was never anything but a POW from 1943 onward. But various documents have established his collaboration with the Nazis. Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel in 1986.
His trial, held in a Jerusalem convention center, was extremely emotional. It was broadcast live on television for weeks, and busloads of school children were brought in to hear testimony relating to the holocaust.
The defense's case benefited from the sudden unveiling of KGB archives in 1990. The testimonies of other "Wachmans" established that Ivan the Terrible was a man named Ivan Marchenko, whose whereabouts have been unknown since the end of World War II.
"It is not easy, maybe it is impossible, to look the survivors straight in the eyes and tell them that their testimony isn't enough," wrote Haaretz newspaper columnist Tom Segev before the verdict. "It borders on denying the Holocaust itself."
And holocaust survivors were shaken by Demjanjuk's acquittal: "What do they mean by reasonable doubt?" asked Joseph Czarny, one of the witnesses who had identified Demjanjuk. "I don't understand this. He [Demjanjuk] will continue his life while we, the few that remain, will continue to bear the pain."
Where Demjanjuk will continue his life is not clear yet. The Israeli Interior Ministry has issued an expulsion order against him. At his lawyer's request, and in order to assure his "personal security," Demjanjuk will be under the custody of the prison authorities temporarily until he finds somewhere to go. Though his family would like to get him back to the US, a US court has already stripped him of his citizenship.