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The Tortuous Search for Ivan

June 11, 1992

Sometime this summer Israel's five-member supreme court is expected to issue a momentous ruling in a case that has become a legal nightmare. At issue is whether a defendant sentenced to death for crimes against humanity committed during the Holocaust is really the man accused in the indictment.

John--born Ivan--Demjanjuk, 72, a Ukrainian immigrant to the United States who was extradited to Israel to stand trial in 1986, claims he is a victim of mistaken identity. An Israeli court, relying on the testimony of five aged survivors of the infamous Treblinka death camp in occupied Poland, convicted Demjanjuk of war crimes, specifically of being a sadistic guard known to his victims as Ivan the Terrible. More than 800,000 Jews were killed in the Treblinka gas chamber that Ivan helped operate.

The court heard a great deal of graphic testimony about the horrors committed in Treblinka, but little documentary evidence was offered to support the allegation that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible. Since Demjanjuk's conviction in 1988, however, material highly relevant to the case has emerged from long- closed Soviet files. Most notable are statements from 37 Treblinka camp guards obtained by Soviet authorities as long ago as the 1950s. These identify as Ivan the Terrible a Ukrainian named Ivan Marchenko, who was described as dark-haired and medium-sized. Wartime photos show Demjanjuk as blond and tall.

Questioning by the Israeli justices seemed to show strong doubts that Demjanjuk is the man prosecutors say he is. If he is not Ivan, then it would seem the high court could simply overturn his conviction and the death sentence it carries. But it's not that simple.

Demjanjuk swears he spent most of the war in a German prison camp. But newly available documentary evidence dating from the early 1940s suggests he was in fact a guard at another camp in Poland--Sobibor, where hundreds of thousands were murdered. So even if Demjanjuk was not the Ivan of Treblinka, he still may have participated in war crimes. What Israel's high court will have to decide is not just whether the wrong man may have been tried for the Treblinka crimes but also whether an innocent man was tried. That is perhaps an entirely different question.

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