Who Is Ivan the Terrible?

In 1984, Allan A. Ryan Jr., now a top attorney for Harvard University, seemed quite sure that a man his Justice Department office prosecuted for denaturalization, John Demjanjuk, was 'Ivan the Terrible,' a Nazi guard at a death camp in Treblinka, Poland. Since then, Ryan has been accused of suppressing evidence that might have cleared Demjanjuk. Today, Ryan himself is no longer sure.

In 1980, Allan A. Ryan Jr., then director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, was sure he had found Ivan the Terrible, the notorious Nazi death camp guard who helped kill a million people at Treblinka, Poland.

Ivan was John Demjanjuk, an engine mechanic for Ford Motor Company who lived at 3326 New Avenue in Parma, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. During the war, Ivan had been infamous for wielding a large pipe and using it to crack the skulls of Treblinka's prisoners.

At least, that's what an envelope Ryan received seemed to indicate. Inside, Ryan found a copy of an identification card from Trawniki, where the Nazi SS trained death camp guards. The card contained a photograph of a man with light, close-cropped hair.

Ryan also had a 1951 visa photograph of Demjanjuk, who had come to the U.S. as one of thousands of Europeans "displaced" by World War II.


The two pictures together made the foundation of the U.S. government's denaturalization case against Demjanjuk, which Ryan's Justice Department office prosecuted.

"We had eyewitnesses who would place him at Treblinka," Ryan wrote in his 1984 book, Quiet Neighbors. "I put the two photos side by side and studied them for a long time. You son of a bitch, I thought. We've got you."

But today, University Attorney Allan A. Ryan Jr., ten years after leaving the Justice Department, does not seem so sure.

Asked this week in an interview in his Holyoke Center office if John Demjanjuk was really "Ivan the Terrible," Ryan retreated from statements he made in his book and in dozens of interviews during the last ten years.

"That decision is in the hands of the Israeli Supreme Court," Ryan says of Ivan the Terrible's true identity. Now, Ryan's conduct in prosecuting the case is under investigation by a federal judge.

Ivan Demjanjuk came to the United States with his wife and daughter in February 1952. The Demjanjuks were allowed passage under the Displaced Persons Act, which allowed Europeans displaced by World War II to enter the U.S. In his immigration papers, he indicated he had been a farmer during the war.

In August 1952, Demjanjuk, who would later be accused of operating the motor used to produce carbon monoxide fumes to kill people at Treblinka, became an engine mechanic at Ford. In 1958, Demjanjuk became an American citizen, changing his first name to John. He had two more children in the 1960s.

But on August 25, 1977, his life changed. The U.S. attorney's office in Ohio filed a complaint charging that Demjanjuk had lied on his application papers. If the truth were known, the complaint said, Demjanjuk would never have been allowed into the country. According to the United States government, the truth was that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible.

As the immigration and Naturalization Services struggled to build a case against Demjanjuk, though, it became clear the agency lacked the resources to win deportation cases against alleged Nazis living in America.

Elizabeth Holtzman '62, then a Congressional representative from New York, lobbied and eventually convinced then President Jimmy Carter's attorney general to create the Office of Special Investigations(OSI) inside the Justice Department for the expressed purpose of hunting down Nazis.