John Demjanjuk, a retired Ford Motor Co. auto mechanic who was stripped of his U.S. citizenship and convicted by a German criminal court for aiding the Nazis in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust, has died. He was 91.
He was found dead this morning in his room at a home for the elderly in the southern German town of Bad Feilnbach, Martin Winkler, a spokesman for the Bavarian police, said in a telephone interview from Rosenheim, Germany.
“There will be a normal investigation into the cause of death and more details will be made public on Monday,” Winkler said. Bad Feilnbach is about 65 kilometers (40 miles) southeast of Munich.
For three decades, the U.S. Justice Department targeted Demjanjuk as a Nazi war criminal who had lied about his World War II activities to win entry to the U.S. in 1952. He became a naturalized citizen in 1958 and changed his first name to John, from Iwan. He lived with his family in Seven Hills, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.
Demjanjuk denied aiding Nazi war crimes and, in 1993, defeated the sensational charge that he was the notorious Holocaust torturer “Ivan the Terrible” of the Treblinka extermination camp.
The case didn’t end there. In 2005, U.S. Chief Immigration Judge Michael J. Creppy ordered Demjanjuk be deported on the grounds that, even if he was not “Ivan the Terrible,” he had served at Nazi death camps.
In May 2011, after a trial lasting almost 18 months, the Munich Regional Court in Germany found Demjanjuk guilty of aiding the Nazis in the murder of at least 28,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp. Sentenced to five years in prison, he was released pending an appeal; that appeal was in process at the time of his death.
Prior to his transfer to Germany, he had appealed unsuccessfully to U.S. courts to halt his deportation, with his son, John Jr., saying his father suffered from kidney disease and a bone-marrow disorder.
The son told the Associated Press today: “My father fell asleep with the Lord as a victim and survivor of Soviet and German brutality since childhood. He loved life, family and humanity. History will show Germany used him as a scapegoat to blame helpless Ukrainian POWs for the deeds of Nazi Germans.”
A native of what is now Ukraine, Demjanjuk said he was drafted into the Soviet army in 1940, was captured by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in prisoner-of-war camps. He denied ever fighting for the Nazis and said his fear of being sent back to the Soviet Union prompted his false assertion, on his U.S. visa application, that he had been a farmer in Poland during the war.
The U.S. first won a court order stripping Demjanjuk of his citizenship in 1981. He was extradited to Israel in 1986 to face charges that he was the sadistic SS guard who tortured Jewish prisoners while herding them into gas chambers at Treblinka, in German-occupied Poland.
After a trial that riveted Israel and turned in part on testimony from Treblinka survivors, the court in 1988 convicted Demjanjuk of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to death by hanging.
Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the ruling in 1993 and returned Demjanjuk to the U.S., where his citizenship was restored. The Israeli judges cited newly released Soviet records that contained depositions from three dozen Treblinka guards and forced laborers who identified “Ivan the Terrible” as Ivan Marchenko. Demjanjuk had listed his mother’s maiden name as Marchenko on his U.S. visa application but later said he had simply chosen a common Ukrainian surname because he had forgotten the real one.
The ruling was a black mark for U.S. prosecutors. A federal appeals panel that reviewed the case accused the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting unit, now known as the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, of fraudulently withholding some of the evidence that ultimately helped Demjanjuk defend himself.
In 2002, prosecutors won a second court ruling that stripped him of his U.S. citizenship. In that case, Judge Paul R. Matia ruled that Demjanjuk had been a “willing,” paid guard at five Nazi concentration camps from 1942 to 1944 and had lied on his 1951 visa application about his whereabouts from 1942 to 1945. That ruling led to the 2005 deportation order and years of appeals by Demjanjuk.
“We want him to stay here because we believe that’s where he belongs,” Demjanjuk’s son-in-law, Edward Nishnic, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2007. “That would be the best for Mr. Demjanjuk and his family. It would be the end of a very long, sad show.”
Life in Ohio
John Demjanjuk was born on April 3, 1920, in the Ukrainian town of Dubovi Makharyntsi. Living in Ohio, he spent three decades as a mechanic on a Ford assembly line.
He lived a mostly secluded life in his family’s Ohio home after his return to the U.S. in 1993, the Plain Dealer reported. He made an appearance in court for a 2005 hearing, accompanied by his wife, Vera, and son, John Jr., the newspaper reported. They also had two daughters.
Nishnic, who helped lead the effort to clear Demjanjuk’s name, told the New York Times in 1992 that Demjanjuk and his wife had used all their savings and sold many of their possessions to fund the defense effort.