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.
Ryan came to the department in January 1980, and two months later he became its director. In between, he travelled to Moscow, where he established contacts in the Soviet government that became very important and highly controversial. Demjanjuk supporters suggested OSI lawyers were the dupes of a Soviet Union out to get Demjanjuk, who grew up in the Ukraine.
"Demjanjuk's supporters have always said the Soviet Union was out to get him," Ryan said in an interview this week. "But to what end? Demjanjuk was not a prominent leader. He was not an outspoken anti-communist."
The Soviets provided the most incriminating piece of evidence against Demjanjuk the identification card from Trawniki.
In his 1981 denaturalization trial, Demjanjuk did not deny that the picture on the identification card was of him. And five Treblinka survivors testified that both the picture on the card and the picture on Demjanjuk's visa application were photos of Ivan the Terrible.
During the four-week trial, Demjanjuk acknowledged lying on his immigration papers, saying that he was in the Red Army and had been taken prisoner by the Nazis. The alibi seemed shaky to the court, and he was stripped of his citizenship.
In his 1984 book, Quiet Neighbors, Ryan describes the hatred and resentment with which he watched the trial.
"As much as I loathed John Demjanjuk, I resented him more, with his impassive silence, his callous, almost bored, demeanor as he faced his accusers, his careless and demonstrably false alibi," Ryan wrote.
Later, Ryan added, "In his smug silence, Demjanjuk is the Nazi mind, telling us something: I did it once, and got away with it. I won't explain how or why, for if I did, you might understand it a little better than you did before, and learn to recognize it when it rears its head again."
After numerous appeals, Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel in 1986 to stand trial for murder. He was convicted and sentenced to death in April 1988. The Israeli Supreme Court has yet to rule on his appeal.
"This has been 16 years of sheer hell for my family," says Demjanjuk's son-in-law Ed Nishnic, who has gone $100,000 in debt trying to clear his father-in-law's name.
But in December 1991, Demjanjuk supporters got their first big break in the case. More than two dozen statements from other Nazi death camps guards were released by the Soviet Union. In the statements, the guards, who were tried and executed by the Soviets between 1944 and 1961, say Ivan the Terrible was another man, Ivan Marchenko.
Yoram Sheftel, Demjanjuk's Israeli lawyer, took this evidence and immediately went on the offensive against Special Investigations and Ryan. Appearing with Ryan on ABC News' "Nightline" on December 23, 1991, Sheftel charged that Ryan had known the guard statements were in OSI files when Demjanjuk was denaturalized.
"I was facing a frame, and this material was deliberately suppressed from me by the Americans, the Soviets and the Israelis," Sheftel told a national television audience.
The charge still infuriates Ryan. Ryan says he knew nothing of the statements, and he testified to that effect under oath last week in Boston.
But it is a difficult trick for Ryan, a man who had publicly boasted about his Soviet contacts and access to Soviet government records, to explain how Justice Department investigators could have not come across these guard statements. In an interview Monday, Ryan speculated the statements might have been stuck somewhere in the inefficient Soviet archive system.
Since news of the guard statements broke. Ryan has offered other possible explanations. He told the Harvard Gazette in January 1992 that Demjanjuk might have been known by his mother's maiden name, Marchenko, at Treblinka. Ryan also said it was possible that both Ivan Marchenko and Ivan Demjanjuk were present at the death camp.
"I don't know what to make of evidence from people who are dead and can't be cross examined," Ryan said in this week's interview. "You don't know what motivations they might have. These are statements that don't get you anywhere like a live witness would."
On ABC's "Nightline" in December 1991, something changed. Ryan softened his stance on the question of whether John Demjanjuk was indeed Ivan the Terrible. "I think it is far too early to reach any responsible answers to that very important question," Ryan told interviewer Jeff Greenfield.
Now, the cloud over the Demjanjuk case has darkened over Ryan's conduct while at OSI.
Last year, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard the Demjanjuk case when it was in the U.S., opened a probe into the conduct of Justice Department lawyers. Now Ryan is being investigated. He testified last Friday, and Judge Thomas A. Wiseman will issue a report in a few weeks to the Sixth Circuit.
There is no mistaking that Ryan's integrity is on the line in this proceeding, and integrity for a lawyer, Ryan says, "is everything." Infact, legal ethicists generally agree that if Ryan or other Justice Department lawyers intentionally suppressed evidence, they should be disbarred.
Ryan today has the look of a man who does not understand where he went wrong. He has said at different times in the past that he regrets some of the phrases in Quiet Neighbors, and he says now the book only represents his thoughts at the time. But now, Ryan says he has no regrets whatsoever, that he has done nothing wrong.
To prepare for his testimony, Ryan had to go back and think through the trial of Demjanjuk. It led him to an intense amount of introspection, but no contrition.
"Now that it is all brought to light," Ryan says, "I don't see anything that I did that I would have done differently."