Prison workers were building his gallows when the call came to set Demjanjuk free.
'Forced to Rely on Trial by Archive'
"The things we do in the name of righteousness . . . historically have led us down dangerous roads," said Michael Tigar, a well-known Washington defense attorney who is handling Demjanjuk's latest case, free of charge. "Someone needs to take a serious look at how these cases are being done. With the deaths of the live witnesses who can support or contradict their version of events, the government is increasingly forced to rely on trial by archive."
Indeed, the government's latest case is almost entirely archival, and most of its witnesses in the trial that ended in June were experts who testified as to the authenticity of the fragile documents--a key point of dispute by the defense.
Over the years, however, the archival case against Demjanjuk has grown, ever so slowly. At the same time, it has become increasingly apparent that wherever and however he spent the war, Demjanjuk has never told the whole truth about it.
In addition to the shrapnel scar on his back, Demjanjuk, who fought successfully to have his U.S. citizenship restored in 1998, has another notable scar, this one on the inside of his upper left arm. He created the scar himself, Demjanjuk acknowledges, when he gouged out a blood-type tattoo from the war. He said he received the tattoo while fighting with the German-sponsored Ukrainian unit in Austria.
There is little historical evidence those fighters were tattooed, however, while it is well documented that the SS tattooed the blood types of many POW conscripts on the upper left arm.
Demjanjuk, at one point, claimed to have been held at a POW camp in Chelm, Poland, even after it had been overrun by the Red Army.
And he has offered various explanations for why, on his visa application, he said he lived in Sobibor, Poland, from 1936 to 1943. Before it became a death camp, Sobibor was little more than a rail stop that didn't even appear on most maps, historians say.
Prosecutors contend there was only one explanation for why a former Ukrainian POW would come up with the name Sobibor, and that it is highly incriminating.
"It would be like someone asking you, 'Where were you on Nov. 22, 1963?' and you saying, 'Well, I happened to be in Dallas that day, at the book depository, with a rifle . . . [but] I'm not Lee Harvey Oswald," said one government official, who asked not to be identified.
While it has never been determined whether the signature on the Trawniki card belongs to Demjanjuk, he and his attorneys have offered various theories as to the card's authenticity.
With the Soviet Union under attack in the 1970s for its treatment of Jews, the KGB may have forged the Trawniki card to demonstrate its commitment to tracking down those involved in the Holocaust, Demjanjuk has suggested. In the most recent trial, the defense argued that the card was probably issued to Demjanjuk's cousin, also named Ivan Demjanjuk, who grew up in the same village, Dub Macharenzi, in central Ukraine.
The government, meanwhile, has collected evidence in addition to the Dienstausweis it says places him at two concentration camps, including a disciplinary report that turned up in a Lithuanian government archive. Filled out by an SS sergeant at the Majdanek concentration camp on Jan. 20, 1943, the report says Wachmann No. 1393, named "Deminjuk," and another guard were given 25 lashes for leaving their posts to buy onions and salt.
OSI investigators discovered two transfer rosters from Trawniki, both held in Russian archives, one listing "Iwan Demianiuk," the other "Iwan Demianjuk," both with ID No. 1393. They found a duty roster from the Flossenburg camp and a list of 117 Flossenburg guards in German archives and indicating the presence of guard No. 1393, "Demenjuk."
And in German records they uncovered an armory log from Flossenburg reporting the issuance of a rifle and bayonet to Wachmann "Demianiuk" on Oct. 8, 1943.
"There can be no question," prosecutors wrote in a trial brief, "that these seven documents refer to Defendant."
Thin and Frail Now, He Rarely Leaves Home
Once the burly stereotype of a Rust Belt auto worker, Demjanjuk is thin and frail now, according to the few who have have seen him in recent years. He seldom leaves the yellow-brick house on the quiet street where he lived before his first trial and to which he returned after being freed by Israel.
He was expected to testify during his trial but never appeared in court. His attorney, Tigar, declined to say why. The defense called only one witness, Demjanjuk's son, John Jr., who was 11 when reporters and photographers filled their frontyard on Aug. 25, 1977, asking about Ivan the Terrible. Active in his father's defense since his teens, John Jr., now 35, testified for only a matter of minutes, saying that in all his conversations with his father, never had the elder Demjanjuk told him he had aided the Nazis.