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Hissed on Flight Home, Demjanjuk Faces Deport Threat

September 23, 1993|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CLEVELAND — Hissed at by passengers on an El Al jet and kept from his home by demonstrators clad in the pin-striped gowns of death camp victims, accused Nazi collaborator John Demjanjuk returned Wednesday to the United States, freed after seven years in an Israeli prison but still facing the threat of renewed deportation.

Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian emigre whose conviction for being a murderous guard at the Treblinka concentration camp was overturned last July by Israel's Supreme Court, went into seclusion moments after a private airplane landed at 10:30 a.m. at the Medina City airstrip outside Cleveland.

Worried about death threats and protected by a hulking, pony-tailed bodyguard, Demjanjuk and family members were whisked away by a waiting car to an undisclosed location.

"Anyone stigmatized as being the most sadistic monster of World War II certainly has reason to be concerned" about threats, said Demjanjuk's son-in-law, Edward Nishnic, who had flown to Israel with Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio), to bring home the retired auto worker.

Demjanjuk was convicted by an Israeli court and sentenced to death in 1986 for being "Ivan the Terrible," a guard who helped operate the gas chambers at Treblinka. He had been deported by a U.S. immigration judge on the testimony of witnesses provided by the Soviet government--accounts since spurned as unreliable.

Neither Demjanjuk's legal escape from the gallows nor the looming possibility that the Justice Department may again try to deport him seemed to matter much to partisans in the Ukrainian community who hailed his return and to Jewish protesters who vilified him. They had long ago made up their minds.

On the 10-hour flight from Tel Aviv to New York, Demjanjuk, who wore a bullet-proof vest under his sports shirt, was not physically attacked. But several passengers circulated a petition venting their outrage. Others were vocal in their fury.

"I smelled the burning flesh at Sobibor," muttered one passenger. "Murderer!" hissed another.

All day, Jewish protesters lined in front of the Demjanjuk home in the Cleveland suburb of Seven Hills, toting banners and chanting, "No peace for Nazis." Some wore prayer shawls. Others were dressed like the dead of Treblinka.

The Seven Hills City Council had passed an ordinance last week banning protests in front of Demjanjuk's home, but town police decided not to arrest the demonstrators, fearing adverse publicity. Demonstrators threatened an ACLU lawsuit if any members were handcuffed by police.

"If Nazis can march in Skokie (an Illinois suburb with a large Jewish population), than we can march in Seven Hills," said Rabbi Avi Weiss, leader of the protest and head of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns. Weiss vowed to "keep shadowing" Demjanjuk when he surfaces again in public.

In Seven Hills and in Parma, working-class suburbs with large enclaves of Ukrainian-Americans, Demjanjuk supporters expressed satisfaction at his release and anger at the protesters.

"They should let the poor man alone," said Helen Shepka, a Ukrainian-American who runs a travel agency on State Road, where parishioners in onion-domed emigre churches have long passed collection plates and petitions for Demjanjuk. "He's been in jail so many years. What more do they want from him?"

Eyeing the protesters outside Demjanjuk's pine-shaded home, Metro Migielicz, 76, a family friend, said: "Their anger is for nothing because they don't know the truth."

Migielicz, a Polish native who worked with Demjanjuk at the region's mammoth Ford auto production plant, often talked with his friend about his experiences during the war, reminiscing over lunch in the plant cafeteria. "He would tell me the Germans used him for slave labor, they gave him nothing to eat. Is this a murderer?"

Demjanjuk has insisted he was a victim of mistaken identity. Captured while serving in the Soviet army, he claimed he was interned in German POW camps.

A Justice Department spokesman said Wednesday that the department will take no action on Demjanjuk's immigration status until a federal appeals circuit in Cincinnati rules on a lower court judge's recommendation that the pending deportation case against Demjanjuk be closed.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas A. Wiseman Jr. had ruled that federal prosecutors erred in the investigation of Demjanjuk's background that lead to his extradition to Israel. But Wiseman added that those flaws would not invalidate a general deportation.

If the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals rules only on the matter of Demjanjuk's extradition to Israel, the department will "continue to have him deported under the present deportation order," said Justice spokesman John Russell.

Demjanjuk had been ordered deported based on accounts that he had falsified his immigration papers by failing to disclose that he had served as a Nazi concentration camp guard.

Although Israel's Supreme Court cleared Demjanjuk of working at Treblinka, its judges reported that new evidence has emerged from Soviet archives suggesting he served as a guard at Sobibor, another death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. But the panel freed him, citing their inability to press new charges because of Israeli double jeopardy protections.

Times staff writer Ron Ostrow in Washington contributed to this story.

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