DURING his nine decades, Ivan Demjanjuk had several identities. “John” was the longest-lasting. Burly, blue-eyed and with no English, he had fetched up in America in 1952 and eventually made his way to Cleveland, where he worked as a diesel-engine mechanic at the Ford factory in Brook Park. He was there for 30 years. In 1958, to mark his American citizenship, he changed his name to John.
At weekends, a handy man with a spanner, he would get under the hood of neighbours’ cars and mend children’s bikes. His ranch-style house in Seven Hills sat on half an acre, where he proudly grew tomatoes and zucchini. On Sundays he went, with Vera and the three children Lydia, Irene and John junior, to St Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral. He kept himself to himself, worked hard, and never made trouble for anyone.
From 1977 to 1993, however, he became Ivan the Terrible, who had roamed the concentration camp at Treblinka in Poland with a whip, or a sword, in his big mechanic’s hands. As the naked Jews ran shivering from the trains to the gas chambers he would slash off an ear, rip open a belly, or flog them til they fell. He drilled the anus of one man with an auger, and shoved the face of another hard into barbed wire. An expert on engines, he had operated the diesels that pumped out carbon monoxide to kill 870,000 people.
At his trial in Israel—only the second war-crimes trial held there, after Eichmann’s—several witnesses from Treblinka recognised John as Ivan: strong, boss-like, with his cold blue eyes. Under suspicion of being the monster, he had already lost his American citizenship and spent seven years in jail in Jerusalem. In 1988 the Israeli judge, “unequivocally” sure of who he was, sentenced him to hang. He heard from his cell the carpenters building the gallows.
Yet he was not that brutal Ivan, he insisted. He had never been at Treblinka. He could not kill anyone, could not even kill a chicken; he had always had to ask his wife to do it. On the contrary, he was a victim himself. Just a poor farm lad from Vinnytsia in Ukraine, both parents invalids, struggling through a time of disaster and famine. Not a bright boy: it had taken him nine years to get through four grades of school. He had ended up driving a tractor on the collective. But he was kind, letting pretty Maria Zagrebelna ride on his harrow, as she recalled, and padding the seat with grass for her.
The Red Army called him up in 1940, then sent him home because he had no underwear. Drafted again in 1941, he was wounded in the back at the Dnieper river; you could still see the scar. The next year the Germans captured him in the Crimea. He remembered that vividly: the day hot yet rainy, and the grass shooting up round him. He remembered less well what happened afterwards. In his broken English he explained that he was moved from one prison camp to another across Europe, spent long months in 1943-44 cutting peat, or perhaps laying railway ties, fought with anti-Communist Russians and ended up by 1945 driving trucks for the Americans. After that he was in a displaced persons’ camp, where he met and married Vera. Then he sailed for America. And that was all.
The narrative was rocky, but one part, perhaps, was true. KGB documents, turned up by his Jewish lawyer when the Soviet archives fell open after 1991, seemed to prove that he was not Ivan the Terrible, whose surname had been different, and who had been shot in 1943. John was reprieved and sent back to Cleveland, to a street festooned with yellow ribbons by his Ukrainian friends. Yet he was not declared innocent, and his old life could never be resumed as before. He kept the house blinds drawn so as not to see the Jewish protesters circling silently outside.
For there was a fourth Ivan/John, who stared from a piece of evidence turned up years before. It was a green SS ID card from the Trawniki camp in Poland, where No. 1393 Demjanjuk and 5,000 other non-German prisoners had been taught in 1942-43 to be useful: to wield a machinegun, throw grenades and bark out orders in German, and in his case to escort Jews at Sobibor extermination camp from the station to their deaths. The card was a Communist forgery, he protested; he had lied when he told American immigration officers that he had been at Sobibor, just plucking the name off a map to avoid repatriation to a Soviet Union that might kill him. But that ID, plus lists of the prisoners he had escorted, plus the scar of an SS tattoo in his left armpit, filled those tricky years in captivity more plausibly than his ever-shifting alibis did.
In 2011, after a fresh trial by a German court, he was convicted on 27,900 counts of being an accessory to murder. He was given a five-year sentence at which, lying on a stretcher in court, he moaned in apparent pain from hips or gout or kidney stones, the victim of vicious Germans, Soviets and now judges—John the Scapegoat, as it seemed to him.
No specific crime at Sobibor was pinned on him. Simply being there, then, and not resisting, was enough. He was hungry, perhaps (“I would have given my soul for a loaf of bread”). Scared, perhaps. But not unwilling to play his small, helpful, handy part in genocide.