In Demjanjuk's Ukrainian hometown, memories linger of an infamous son

Deportation of the accused death-camp guard was stayed Tuesday.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

When news broke that suspected Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk would be deported to Germany to face charges of accessory to murder in 29,000 cases, this tiny hamlet, deep in Ukraine's impoverished countryside, had special reason to take note.

Mr. Demjanjuk had been expected to be flown by private jet tonight to Germany. But a federal court, late Tuesday afternoon, stayed the order until it could further review the case.

Eighty-nine years ago this month, he was here in Dubovye Makharinsty, a farming village about 100 miles west of Kiev. He grew up in the village and worked on the collective farm before joining the Soviet Army to fight Nazi invaders. He was wounded and then taken prisoner by the Germans.

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What happened then depends on whom you believe.

Demjanjuk asserts he remained a prisoner of the Germans until the end of the war, when he emigrated to the United States and changed his name from Ivan to John. Documents as well as the mark under his left arm, where an SS number might have been tattooed, incriminate him as a Nazi death-camp guard.

The 30-year investigation into Demjanjuk's past, including the dramatic 1993 reversal of an Israeli death sentence, means that the villagers in this downtrodden town are well aware of their most infamous son.

Marusya Lavrinuk, who is two years younger than Demjanjuk, was the proverbial "girl next door" in their adolescence. On a recent day, Ms. Lavrinuk pointed to where the Demjanjuks' cottage stood near to her own wooden hut.

"Yes, I remember Ivan as a boy," she says. "He seemed a normal lad, except taller than most. He drove the tractor."

Tough times for a young 'Ivan the Terrible'

Lavrinuk and Ivan Demjanjuk belong to a generation blighted in their youth by a series of unimaginable catastrophes.

The first, in 1932-33, was the man-made famine known in Ukraine as the Holodomor. It decimated the rural population as Soviet authorities confiscated scarce grain.

Five years after the famine came the 1937 Stalinist purges. A memorial plaque in the village lists 22 villagers as having been executed.

The war arrived in 1941. Lavrinuk says she remembers the day German tanks rolled into the village. She reacted with silence to further questions about the invasion: the village war memorial lists four men with her surname and an incredible total of 120 dead, which constituted the vast majority of men from the village.

Among the dead are two Demjanjuks, both relatives of Ivan, and a reminder how Ivan Demjanjuk might easily have died a hero's death fighting the Nazis.

Instead, prosecutors allege that, in 1942, Demjanjuk was captured and recruited to the ranks of the notoriously cruel Ukrainian SS auxiliaries. He zealously participating in mass killings of Jews in Ukraine as well as in Poland's Treblinka and Sobibor death camps.

Before the war, when the Soviets established collective farms, Demjanjuk was the tractor driver for his village's operation. He was reputed to be good with engines.

'Why won't they leave him in peace?'

Nazi crimes were perpetuated against Jews throughout Ukraine, but the brunt of the pogrom was experienced in cities and towns, where much of Jewish life was centered. In Dubovye Makharintsy, there's not much open sympathy for the thousands who might have suffered under Demjanjuk's hand.

Only about 300 people, many of them elderly, live in this crumbling farming village, where horse carts remain a common form of transportation. Demjanjuk's former neighbors express confusion surrounding the generation-long saga of his war-crimes prosecution. Here, he is seen more of a victim of a witch hunt than a perpetrator of evil.

"They cleared him once already," Lavrinuk says. "What do they want with him now? Why won't they leave him in peace?"

Demjanjuk was originally tried in Israel as the sadistic Ukrainian guard at the Treblinka death camp known as "Ivan the Terrible." He was sentenced to death in 1988, and then sensationally acquitted in 1993 on account of mistaken identity.

Six years ago, a US judge revoked Demjanjuk's citizenship based on evidence that he concealed his past work at the Nazi camps. In 2005, an immigration judge decreed that he could be deported to Ukraine, Poland, or Germany.

Confusion reigns in small village

The original Demjanjuk house burned down after the war, explains Marusya's current neighbor, Nikolai Grigorivich, whose house now stands on the site.

Asked his opinion of Demjanjuk, Mr. Grigorivich says, "he might have been a bad man, but he did not do me any harm, so I don't have strong feelings. And what's the point of putting such an old man on trial?"

One thing in particular rankles the villagers.

"What I don't understand," asks Grigorivich, "is how can it be right that the Germans are trying a Ukrainian for murdering Jews, and not the other way round?"

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