A version of The Undoing. One depicting a real trial. An even sicker case. With a lot more riding on the outcome.
John Demjanjuk was a retired auto worker in the US. He had a family. Children. Grandchildren. He often went to Church. Everyone who knew him personally back in the US had only positive things to say about him.
Then documents surfaced that linked him to the Holocaust. In the most disturbing way possible.
Was he the notorious concentration camp guard Ivan The Terrible?
A guy responsible for operating engines that pumped the gas into the gas chambers at Treblinka?
If yes, then we are talking about a man who went around the camp slashing off the ears of inmates or their nose or other body parts. He sliced the flesh of the backs of people while pushing them to their death in the gas chambers. His sadistic appetite was indiscriminate. Men, women, children… He tortured them all with relish.
John Demjanjuk maintained his innocence. What made him suspicious, apart from the documents linked to him, was that he knew about virtually unknown places close to some notorious concentration camps. The German term ‘Vernichtungslager’ is a better way to describe these places. Camps of destruction.
At his trial in Israel several witnesses swore that they recognized him. They were certain it was this sick pervert Ivan The Terrible.
John Demanjuk himself offered more incriminating evidence. He claimed he had been an agricultural laborer in the area of Sobibor. As a Ukranian he had fought in the Red Army and after his capture by the Germans he was put to work.
What makes this rather unlikely is that the Germans tattoed his blood group under his arm. Nobody knew about this until he volunteered this fact at his trial. He had later got rid of the tattoo.
The Germans only did this with members of the SS. Not with laborers.
He was found guilty and sentenced to hang.
Then the twist comes.
Communism fell and a lot of new information became available.
It now seemed as if John Demjanjuk wasn’t Ivan The Terrible.
But wait for it…
He wasn’t a completely innocent man either. Maybe he wasn’t Ivan The Terrible, but he did serve as a guard at Sobibor.
There was now too much doubt for the court to uphold their verdict. He was released and flown back to the US.
Until Germany prosecuted him for his time at Sobibor.
In an unprecedented move the German court decided he was guilty. He was an accessory to murder. No direct crimes could be linked to him, but simply the fact that he had been a guard at Sobibor was enough. He worked there and this made him part of a death machine.
Before this Germany treated camp guards as nothing but common murderers. If no murder could directly be linked to them they walked. This is why so very few camp guards have been sentenced to jail.
John Demjanjuk died before a final appeal was resolved so officially he is – astonishingly – innocent.
His lawyer – one of the most unabashedly narcissistic individuals you will ever see interviewed – claims his client was the victim of a KGB misinformation campaign to smear the west for harboring ex nazis.
The judges at the trial in Israel have no doubt that he was indeed no other than Ivan The Terrible. The man who happily gassed children and prodded people to their gruesome death at bayonet point.
I am personally convinced John Demjanjuk was this Ivan The Terrible. Why? Because of the unbelievable cooncidence that he used the real name of this ‘other’ Ivan The Terrible when he emigrated to the US. A name that resurfaces several times in the history of this case: Marchenko.
He claimed he had simply used the last name of his mother at the time, but this wasn’t her real name.
People interviewed in the documentary keep repeating how nice he was to his kids and grandchildren. As if this makes his guilt impossible. It does not.
A sadistic monster can very well be the nicest man in other parts of his life. It all depends on the circumstances. In the environment of Treblinka and Sobibor where all laws of human decency are abolished if not reversed he can be a monster. Especially if this gets him the respect of his superiors. John Demjanjuk may be one of those chameleon people he will simply adapt to what is expected of him in order to be succesful and to be liked. Albert Speer was exactly the same, although too smart and too ‘cultured’ to make his hands dirty running around sawing people’s ears off. The personality type is similar though driven by different brain capacities.
This is also why the cases is a bit similar to the case in The Undoing where we see how a doctor that treats sick children can in different circumstances also act like a monster.
The devil next door is a catchy title, but from a psychological point of view it’s the wrong one.
John Demjanuk was not the devil. He was a human being. A human being capable of the worst AND the best all in the same life time.
There is good and evil in all of us and we never know for sure which side triumphs until we are given the opportunity to be evil with impunity.
Perhaps the most important accomplishment of this docu series is that it shows how challenging it us to bring about justice.
John Demjanuk had an easy role to play. Stubbornly deny everything. It’s shocking to think that these camp guards killed millions and that with the passing of time it’s so very hard to link them to any crime.
I support the decision to sentence people on the basis of having worked in one of the camps. Even when nothing else is known about their time there. It was possible to be transferred. It’s been proven that nobody was forced (except some of the inmates) to work at place like Treblinka or to be part of the Einsatzgruppen who went about shooting thousands. There was the option to refuse without even incurring so much as a sanction.
There may have been SS men who tried to help inmates in the camps or to at least try to treat them with dignity, but of the thousands who worked there this must be a very tiny number indeed. Also those who took pity on the victims were still part of a death machine. There are of course always exceptions. There is the famous case of Hans Münch. He was a doctor at Auschwitz where he saved the lives of many prisoners via all sorts of ruses. This turned out to be enough to escape a death sentence after the war. However, it is most unlikely that anyone who served at a place like Auschwitz is completely innocent. Hans Münch worked alongside one of the sickest minds this world has ever seen: Joseph Mengele. Hans Münch did experiment on people. Later in life he said going to Auschwitz had been a great opportunity. The fact that he saved some prisoners does not exonerate him of the crime of working at a death camp.
I do not know who John Demjanjuk really was. I find it likely, but not certain, that he was Ivan The Terrible.
In the rosiest of cases he became a camp guard to escape the harsh conditions Soviet prisoners of war had to endure. In the rosiest of cases he did not personally hurt anyone at Sobibor. But even in the rosiest of cases he choose to go there and his work at the death camp was considered important enough to keep him on the payroll.
That he was a kind family man later in life changes nothing. Only a full confession could have at least brought some solace to the victims and have spared society a lot of trouble.
His lawyer, Yoram Sheftel, became a celebrity, raked in a lot of cash and wrote a bestseller on the case. Apart from John Demjanuk this lawyer is the most disturbing character in this docu series.
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