THREE years after he was sentenced to death for being the notorious and sadistic Nazi death camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible, John Demjanjuk is hoping that an appeals court hearing here today will overturn that verdict on the grounds of mistaken identity.Five Israeli Supreme Court judges are to rule on compelling new evidence from Soviet judicial archives that Mr. Demjanjuk, a former Cleveland auto worker, was not the man who operated the gas chamber at Treblinka, Poland, during World War II. Even if they accept that evidence, however, it is not certain that they will free Demjanjuk. The prosecution has also unearthed new documents during the three-year appeals process, supporting allegations that Demjanjuk was actually a guard at Sobibor, another concentration camp in Poland. The case has been given an explosive new twist with claims by Demjanjuk's lawyer, Yoram Sheftel, that his client was framed by the United States agency that prosecuted him before his 1986 extradition to Israel. Mr. Sheftel says that in 1978 officials of the US Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI) saw Soviet documents suggesting Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible, but ignored them. The Justice Department said last week that it was "reviewing the John Demjanjuk matter" and would make no further comment. Demjanjuk, now 71, was extradited from the US after an 11-year investigation on the grounds that he had lied about his wartime activities on his initial US visa application in 1947.
Emotional trial During his emotional 15-month trial in Israel, survivors of the Holocaust and other witnesses recalled harrowing details of the Nazi death camps, particularly of Treblinka, where 850,000 Jews were murdered in gas chambers between 1942 and 1943. Demjanjuk, the court found, was indeed the man known as Ivan the Terrible. Demjanjuk "stood at the gates of hell and was zealous in the extreme," State Attorney Yonah Blatman said at the trial. "He was one of the greatest oppressors the Jewish people ever had." He was sentenced to death in April 1988. Under Israeli law an appeal is mandatory when the sentence is death. Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian, has always said he is the victim of mistaken identity and claimed at his trial that after his Red Army unit surrendered he became a German prisoner of war. But he was unable to name any prisoners at the Chelm camp where he claimed to have been held. Another piece of corroborating evidence was an identity card in his name from Trawniki, a concentration camp where the Nazis trained selected POWs to be auxiliary members of the SS. That card, which the defense argued was a Soviet forgery, recorded a posting to Sobibor, where 250,000 Jews perished. Central to the prosecution's case, though, was the dramatic courtroom testimony of five Treblinka survivors, who positively identified Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible.
New evidence That testimony has now been called into question by documents that have come to light in the Soviet Union. Transcripts of interrogations of former Treblinka guards who were tried for war crimes by Soviet authorities between 1947 and 1962 strongly suggest that Ivan the Terrible was a Ukrainian by the name of Ivan Marchenko. Fourteen of the guards identify him by that name, according to the documents defense lawyer Sheftel filed with the Supreme Court last August. Records of their testimony also raise other troubling differences between Demjanjuk and the man known as Ivan the Terrible, including his place of birth, his date of capture, and his appearance. Nothing is known of Marchenko's whereabouts after 1945, when he is thought to have been serving in a concentration camp near Trieste, Italy. All the guards whose testimony has now come to light were executed by the Soviets. Israeli prosecutor Michael Shaked, who refuses to discuss the case with reporters, appeared to back away from the identification of Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible at an appellate hearing last August, when he asked for a four-month recess in order to respond to the new evidence. He said he would produce new documents that "will hermetically seal once and for all the lies of the man who says he has an alibi, and then the defense will come forward and ask for forgiveness from the Jewish people for what the man did in Trawniki and Sobibor." Asked "What about Treblinka?" by a judge, Mr. Shaked replied, "I shall deal with Treblinka later."
Same serial number Shaked is expected to present a document today that he found recently in German archives, drawn up by the SS and listing Demjanjuk as an auxiliary with the same serial number as that on the Trawniki identity card. While this list appears to destroy the defense argument that the ID card is a forgery, it also undermines the prosecution's own suggestion that Demjanjuk and Marchenko are the same man, and that Demjanjuk used the name Marchenko as an alias. Nor does the list, or the ID card, offer any evidence that Demjanjuk served at Treblinka. The new evidence offered by the defense has troubled those anxious to prove Demjanjuk's guilt, and prompted them to emphasize the evidence that he served as a guard at Sobibor. "If he wasn't Ivan the Terrible, then he was another terrible Ivan," says Efraim Zuroff of the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jersusalem. m convinced that even if he is found not to be Ivan the Terrible, he will not walk free. He will be tried for being at Sobibor." Demjanjuk's defense counsel Sheftel disputes this. "My client came to Israel under an extradition order, and he can be tried in Israel only under the terms of that extradition, that he is Ivan the Terrible. If he is not, the court has no jurisdiction to try him for anything else," Sheftel argues. Meanwhile, State Department cables released recently under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that as early as 1978 Soviet officials passed on to the US testimony by some of the Treblinka guards whose evidence identifies Marchenko as Ivan the Terrible. But former OSI director Allan Ryan, in a phone interview from Cambridge, Mass., points out that US authorities had asked Moscow only for evidence concerning another Treblinka guard, Feodor Fedorenko, whose case was then before a US court. "It's entirely possible that the Soviets were doing exactly what they were asked, providing ... excerpted materials on Fedorenko," he says. "If that is what happened, any evidence on Ivan the Terrible or Demjanjuk would not have been included."