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John Demjanjuk passed away today at 91. He was the Cleveland autoworker who had been tried and convicted of being Ivan the Terrible, a horrific guard at the Treblinka death camp, and, when that conviction was overturned, was later convicted of being a different guard at the Sobibor death camp, a conviction that was on appeal at the time of his passing today in a nursing home.
I chronicled John Demjanjuk’s case — using actual trial transcripts — in my 1997 novel Frameshift.
On this day of Demjanjuk’s passing, here’s a scene from Frameshift. The character of Avi Meyer, below, is a fictitious agent with the Office of Special Investigations, the real division of the United States Department of Justice devoted to hunting down Nazi war criminals; the OSI was responsible for the original misidentification of John Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible. During the trial, Avi had been reading To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of African-American Tom Robinson, convicted of a crime he was physically incapable of committing.
Frameshift was a finalist for the Hugo and Aurora Awards, and won Japans’ Seiun Award for best foreign novel.
Avi Meyer sat in his apartment, mouth hanging open.
Demjanjuk had been found guilty, of course, and sentenced to death. The outcome had been obvious from the beginning of the trial. Still, there had to be an appeal: it was mandatory under Israeli law. Avi hadn’t been sent to Israel for the second trial; his bosses at the OSI were confident nothing would change. Surely all the claims filtering into the press were just clever ploys by Demjanjuk’s grandstanding attorneys. Surely the interview aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes with Maria Dudek, a skinny woman now in her seventies, with white hair beneath a kerchief, ragged clothing, and only a few teeth left, a woman who had been a prostitute in the 1940s in Wolga Okralnik near Treblinka, a woman who had had a regular john—a regular ivan—who operated the gas chambers there, a woman who had screamed in bought passion for him—surely this old woman was mistaken when she said her client’s name had not been Ivan Demjanjuk but rather Ivan Marchenko.
But no. Avi Meyer was watching all the OSI’s work unravel on CNN. The Israeli Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Meir Shamgar, had just overturned the conviction of John Demjanjuk.
Demjanjuk had now been held prisoner in Israel for five and a half years. His appeal had been delayed three years due to a heart attack suffered by Judge Zvi Tal. And during those three years, the Soviet Union had fallen and formerly secret files had been made public.
Just as Maria Dudek had said, the man who had operated the gas chamber at Treblinka had been Ivan Marchenko, a Ukrainian who did bear a resemblance to Demjanjuk. But the resemblance was only passing. Demjanjuk had been born April 3, 1920, while Marchenko had been born February 2, 1911. Demjanjuk had blue eyes while Marchenko’s were brown.
Marchenko had been married before the outbreak of World War II. Demjanjuk’s son-in-law, Ed Nishnic, had gone to Russia and tracked down Marchenko’s family in Seryovka, a village in the district of Dnepropetrovsk. The family had not seen Marchenko since he’d enlisted in the Red Army in July 1941. Marchenko’s abandoned wife had died only a month before Nishnic’s visit, and his daughter broke down and cried upon learning of the horrors her long-missing father had perpetrated at Treblinka. “It’s good,” she was reported to have said between sobs, “that mother died not knowing.”
When those words had been relayed to him, Avi’s heart had jumped. It was the same sentiment he’d felt upon learning that Ivan had forced his own father to rape a little girl.
The KGB files contained a sworn statement from Nikolai Shelaiev, the other gas-chamber operator at Treblinka, the one who had been, quite literally, the lesser of two evils. Shelaiev had been captured by the Soviets in 1950, and tried and executed as a war criminal in 1952. His deposition contained the last recorded sighting by anyone anywhere of Ivan Marchenko, coming out of a brothel in Fiume in March 1945. He had told Nikolai he had no intention of returning home to his family.
Even before Maria Dudek had spoken to Mike Wallace, even before Demjanjuk was stripped of his U.S. citizenship, Avi had known that the last name used by Ivan the Terrible while at Treblinka might indeed have been Marchenko. But that was of no significance, Avi had assured himself: the name Marchenko was intimately linked to Demjanjuk, anyway. In a form Demjanjuk had filled out in 1948 to claim refugee status, he had given it as his mother’s maiden name.
But before the first trial, the marriage license of Demjanjuk’s parents, dated 24 January 1910, had come to light. It proved his mother’s maiden name wasn’t Marchenko at all; rather, it was Tabachuk. When Avi had questioned Demjanjuk about why he’d put “Marchenko” on the form, Demjanjuk had claimed he’d forgotten his mother’s real maiden name and, considering the matter of no consequence, had simply inserted a common Ukrainian surname to complete the paperwork.
Right, Avi had thought. Sure.
But now it seemed it had been the truth. John Demjanjuk was not Ivan …
… and Avi Meyer and the rest of the OSI had come within inches of being responsible for the execution of an innocent man.
Avi needed to relax, to get his mind off all this.
He walked across his living room to the cabinet in which he kept his videotapes. Brighton Beach Memoirs always cheered him up, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and …
Without thinking it through, he pulled out a two-tape set.
Judgment at Nuremberg.
Hardly lightweight but, at three hours, it would keep his mind occupied until it was time to go to bed.
Avi put the first tape in his VCR and, while the stirring overture played, popped some Orville Redenbacher’s in the microwave.
The movie played on. He drank three beers.
The tables had been turned at Nuremberg: Burt Lancaster played Ernst Janning, one of four German judges on trial. It seemed like a small, supporting role, until Janning took the stand in the movie’s final half hour …
The case against Janning hinged on the matter of Feldenstein, a Jew he’d ordered executed on trumped-up indecency charges. Janning demanded the right to speak, over the objections of his own lawyer. When he took the stand, Avi felt his stomach knotting. Janning told of the lies Hitler had sold German society: “`There are devils among us: Communists, liberals, Jews, Gypsies. Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.’” Janning shook his head slightly. “It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb.”
Lancaster spoke forcefully, bringing every bit of his craft to the soliloquy. “It is not easy to tell the truth,” he said, “but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it, whatever the pain and humiliation.” He paused. “I had reached my verdict on the Feldenstein case before I ever came into the courtroom. I would have found him guilty whatever the evidence. It was not a trial at all. It was a sacrificial ritual in which Feldenstein the Jew was the helpless victim.”
Avi stopped the tape, deciding not to watch the rest even though it was almost over. He went to the bathroom and brushed his teeth.
But he’d accidentally pushed PAUSE instead of STOP. After five minutes, the tape disengaged and the TV blared at him—more of CNN. He returned to the living room, fumbled for the remote—
—and decided to continue on to the end. Something in him needed to see the finale again.
After the trial, after Janning and the other three Nazi jurists were sentenced to life imprisonment, Spencer Tracy—playing the American judge, Judge Haywood—went at Janning’s request to visit Janning in jail. Janning had been writing up memoirs of the cases he was still proud of, the righteous ones, the ones he wanted to be remembered for. He gave the sheaf of papers to Haywood for safekeeping.
And then, his voice containing just the slightest note of pleading, Lancaster again in full control of his art, he said, “Judge Haywood—the reason I asked you to come. Those people, those millions of people … I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it. You must believe it.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Spencer Tracy said, sadly, softly, “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”
Avi Meyer turned off the TV and sat in the darkness, slumped on the couch.
“Devils among us.” Hitler’s phrase, according to Janning. Back in his wooden storage cabinet, next to the blank spot for Judgment at Nuremberg was Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story.
Echoes, there. Uncomfortable ones, but echoes still.
Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.
Avi had wanted to believe that. Destroy the misery, let the ghosts rest.
It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb.
No. No, it had been a righteous case, a just case, a—
I had reached my verdict before I ever came into the courtroom. I would have found him guilty whatever the evidence. It was not a trial at all. It was a sacrificial ritual.
Yes, down deep, Avi Meyer had known. Doubtless the Israeli judges—Dov Levin, Zvi Tal, and Dalia Dorner—had known, too.
Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.
Mar Levin, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.
Mar Tal, it came to that …
Giveret Dorner, it came to that …
Avi felt his intestines shifting.
Agent Meyer, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.
Avi got up and stared out his window, looking out on D Street. His vision was blurry. We’d wanted justice. We’d wanted someone to pay. He placed his hand against the cold glass. What had he done? What had he done?
Now the Israeli prosecutors were saying, well, if Demjanjuk wasn’t Ivan the Terrible, maybe he’d been a guard at Sobibor or some other Nazi facility.
Avi thought of Tom Robinson, with his crippled black hand. Shiftless nigger—if he wasn’t guilty of raping Mayella Ewell, well, he was probably guilty of something else.
CNN had shown the theater that had been turned into a courthouse, the same theater Avi had sat in five years previously, watching the case unfold. Demjanjuk, even now not freed, was taken away to the jail cell where he’d spent the last two thousand nights.
Avi walked out of his living room, into the darkness.
Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.
But not even the ghosts stood to mark Avi Meyer’s exit.