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KGB Evidence Reopens the Case of 'Ivan the Terrible' : Holocaust: Recently released files bolster the appeal of the man convicted as a Nazi death camp monster.

December 21, 1991|DANIEL WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — In the spring of 1988, the trial of accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk came to a dramatic end as the three judges said with assurance: "We hereby rule, without any second thoughts or wavering, that the defendant, Ivan John Demjanjuk, who stands here before us, is Ivan, known as Ivan the Terrible, who ran the gas chambers at Treblinka."

Not long after, a judge ruled with equal sternness that "the court must impose the death penalty."

Last August, after hearing the latest round of arguments in his long appeal, Demjanjuk seemed confident that the sentence would never be carried out. "If all goes well," predicted the Ukrainian-born auto worker from Cleveland, "I'm going home."

A shadow of doubt is spreading over a verdict that seemed to have closed the horrific case of a man described as a sadistic monster, a "man from another planet," in the words of one witness, who took pleasure in torturing concentration camp inmates before driving them into airtight rooms and activating the machinery of poison gas.

Evidence gleaned from the Soviet KGB, which under glasnost (openness) became generous with information that had been locked up for decades, has fed the doubt that was unthinkable almost four years ago. The documents suggest that Demjanjuk is not the guard whom prisoners called Ivan the Terrible. The evidence includes a telling photograph, accounts from prison guards who themselves were convicted in secret trials over the years and documents from Germany that list the names Ivan Demjanjuk and Ivan Marchenko--the man the defense claims was Ivan the Terrible.

It may soon be decided whether the sum of new accounts will mean freedom for Demjanjuk, an immigrant who was deprived of his American citizenship and extradited to Israel in 1986. Israel's Supreme Court is scheduled to reconvene Monday to review the evidence and hear the prosecution try to refute it.

"It's a mistake, clear and simple," argued Yoram Sheftel, the defender of Demjanjuk. "My client is not Ivan the Terrible."

Even observers of the trial who were once convinced of Demjanjuk's guilt are preparing for a possible reversal. "If he is not Ivan the Terrible, we can take heart that this was discovered in a Jewish court in Israel," said Harry Wall, the Jerusalem director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Beyond the fate of Demjanjuk himself, the trial's end will raise issues about the process itself and the fading of Holocaust memory. Was the trial an exercise in justice or a ritual means of educating new generations to the horror? Should such trials be carried out in emotionally wrenched Israel or in countries where the events took place and which perhaps need the reminder?

"It is hard to assume that strong feelings--not only on the part of those who were direct victims of the Nazis--allows one to hold a trial which is free of psychological pressures which is necessary to a pure trial," wrote commentator Ran Kaslo in the Haaretz newspaper. "The holding of trials in such an atmosphere is in danger of leading to legal errors. In everything connected to the Holocaust, we must not make such mistakes."

A clear and clean result is unlikely. Stumbling over the new evidence, prosecutors hinted that they will shift gears and try to convict Demjanjuk of crimes he allegedly committed while a wachmann , or guard, at another death camp, Sobibor in Poland.

At the August hearing, lawyer Michael Shaked launched a new line of argument. "There is no moral difference whether Demjanjuk pushed one Jewish child into the gas chamber in Sobibor or Treblinka," Shaked argued. "Even if the defense is successful in proving that Demjanjuk was not present at Treblinka, years of trial have proved that Demjanjuk is a Nazi war criminal. Will we now ask for his forgiveness?"

One judge on the three-judge appeals panel sensed that 8,800 pages of testimony from 32 witnesses, 273 exhibits and a 744-page verdict were being shifted from Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka onto someone else from some other place. "You are turning your attention to Sobibor and Trawniki," the judge declared, also referring to a wachmann training school. "What about Treblinka?"

"I will deal with Treblinka later," responded Shaked, who has refused interviews until the appeals have run their course.

Central to the new evidence is a photograph of Ivan the Terrible and a description that does not match the 1942 appearance of Demjanjuk except in the general, ovular shape of the face. The accounts of 21 guards who were tried in the Soviet Union on war crimes gave details that differentiate Demjanjuk from Ivan the Terrible--mostly that the last name of Ivan was Marchenko. One described Ivan the Terrible as having brown hair, hazel eyes and a large scar down to his neck; Demjanjuk was blond with grayish-blue eyes and no such scar.

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