On any given day, we’ll most likely find ourselves having some sort of encounter with our neighbors. Whether we want the interaction to occur is another story. What’s more important is that we often don’t know who our neighbors truly are. For some, a neighbor is their best friend or a family member. For others, it’s the annoying person who revs their cars in the morning and can’t figure out how to bring in their trash cans. But for the most part, a neighbor is someone we often have to get along with in order to keep peace in the neighborhood.
Would most of us consider our neighbor the devil? Most likely not. Would you trade your neighbor for someone else? Possibly. But what if your neighbor was the devil? In Cleveland, Ohio in 1977, some neighbors learned that their neighbor was John Demjanjuk, otherwise known as Ivan the Terrible.
Demjanjuk was always considered a quiet man who kept to himself and worked hard, but never the devil.
Is This the Devil You Speak Of?
What do we consider to be a devil? Every religious group in the world would define it as something different. But everyone other than Satanists would agree that the devil embodies someone who causes harm, is filled with hate, and is filled with an evil spirit.
None of these characteristics were ever used when describing John Demjanjuk. Up until 1977, Demjanjuk lived a quiet, somewhat normal life in Cleveland, Ohio with his wife and three children. Demjanjuk was a Ukrainian citizen who, in 1952, sought to create a new life for himself, his wife, and his young daughter in the United States.
Demjanjuk was born in Ukraine in 1920 and when he turned 20, was drafted into the Red Army. Shortly after his enlistment, he was taken prisoner by the Germans during the battle in Crimea and was trained to be a Nazi prison camp guard at the Trawniki concentration camp.
Getting to Know Ivan the Terrible
It’s at this point where Demjanjuk’s story becomes blurred. There are some documents that show he was captured during the battle of Kerch in May of 1942. Other documents show he was transferred to the Trawniki and Sobibor concentration camps. Nazis produced their own documents to cover their tracks and as a result, there are different theories and stories to the same person.
It was at this time in 1942 that Demjanjuk was dubbed Ivan the Terrible because he tortured Jews by cutting off ears, limbs, or stabbed them before entering the gas chamber.
Demjanjuk was allegedly one of the most vicious and violent human beings to ever walk the earth. However, how could Demjanjuk be Ivan the Terrible if he was a truck driver in 1942 and has documents to prove that? How could he be Ivan the Terrible if he was allegedly born in 1911, not 1920?
The Demjanjuk Trial(s)
John Demjanjuk lived in the United States with his family for nearly 22 peaceful years before being thrust to the forefront of global news. It was determined that in 1975, he was suspected of having collaborated with Germans in World War II.
He was accused of being a Nazi guard at the Sobibor concentration camp but vehemently denied the allegations. However, when submitting his United States citizenship papers in the early 1950s, he stated his residence was in Sobibor from 1937–1943. The allegations aligned with a story he tried to deny.
In 1977, the United States Justice Department notified Demjanjuk that his citizenship was going to be revoked due to his involvement in Nazi prison camps and falsifying information on his United States citizenship application. Shortly after, three Nazi guards gave sworn testimonies stating that they knew Demjanjuk and they identified him as himself in his Nazi prison guard card picture.
The Nazi prison card was proven to be authentic but only stated he was in Sobibor, not Treblinka. The opposition noted that the reason Treblinka was omitted was due to administrative sloppiness.
Demjanjuk admitted to lying on his United States citizen application but claimed it was out of fear of being denied. He again denied being a Nazi concentration camp guard and that he was actually a German prisoner who was forced into work labor.
In 1981, Demjanjuk’s United States citizenship was revoked and in 1983, Israel issued for his extradition to stand trial. The trial would fall under the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators Law of 1950 for his alleged crimes in Sobibor. He was deported to Israel in February of 1986.
After years of trials, witnesses, a re-trial, more witnesses, and a trial in Germany, the evidence was never 100% conclusive that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible. Even though the evidence was insurmountable, consider the SS tattoo he had under his arm which he had removed, John Demjanjuk died a free man. However, he did not die a conscious free.
There is so much evidence pointing at Demjanjuk being Ivan the Terrible, but in the court of law, he was innocent. In his trial in Germany, he was found guilty of his crimes. However, because he died before his sentencing, based on German law he was not convicted.
The Demjanjuk Family
John’s children, Irene, Lydia, and John Jr., all fought for their father’s innocence throughout the 30-year debacle of trials. Everyone in the Demjanjuk family disputed the claims that their father could have been such a terrible person, what person wouldn’t fight for their family? But they went a bit overboard as the trials became more intense.
At the trial in Israel, his wife Vera, daughter Irene, and son John Jr. yelled at prosecutors calling them liars and other obscenities. To hear stories about their father cutting off limbs before forcing people to be burned alive cannot be easy for anyone to hear, but to call them a liar is blasphemy.
During the trials, a man by the name of Ed Nichnic approached John’s daughter, Irene, and struck up a close friendship. The two married shortly after and Ed became one of John Demjanjuk’s most outspoken proponent. Nichnic constantly found himself in the spotlight and although it was never stated or confirmed, he loved it.
Ed Nichnic lived a quiet, somewhat boring life before learning of the Demjanjuk trials and thrust himself into the limelight, and made a name for himself. It’s always interesting to learn of someone’s motives when they advocate for someone they never knew a few months prior.
The family to this day still believes their father and grandfather to be innocent, but coincidences are too many? How much evidence is too much? After all, he was found guilty of these accusations twice.
Could Demjanjuk’s neighbors ever have guessed they were living next to a Nazi prison guard (allegedly)? Who could? After all of the evidence and trials, the evidence points to John Demjanjuk being Ivan the Terrible, the hateful, terrible Nazi prison guard.
In the court of law however, he died an innocent man. His name will forever be tied to numerous trials, media biases, a supportive family, and a tarnished legacy.
We can see our neighbors, we can talk to our neighbors, but will we ever know if the devil lives next door?
P.S. — this post is not meant to be a slanderous piece against the Demjanjuk family or anyone associated with them. The evidence and facts that were presented to me helped shape and construct this piece.
I loved the documentary on Netflix. Everyone knew that John ‘Ivan’ Demjanjuk had been at Treblinka. The problem was that the prosecutors were going after ‘Ivan the Terrible’ not Ivan Demjanjuk. The prosecutors should have been going after John Demjanjuk for being a Nazi guard than trying to say he was a partiuclar personality at the camp.