16 Years Later, Demjanjuk Could End Where He Started

3326 New Avenue, Parma, Ohio.

That's the address in suburban Cleveland where John Demjanjuk lived when Justice Department lawyers, including University Attorney Allan A. Ryan Jr., attempted to revoke his citizenship more than a decade ago.

Ironically, it's also the address to which Demjanjuk could soon return. This week, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Demjanjuk may return to the U.S. while his denaturalization is appealed.

In 1977, Demjanjuk was accused by the Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations of being the infamous Ivan the Terrible, a Nazi death camp guard at Treblinka, Poland who brutally beat Holocaust victims and was in charge of the area where nearly one million Jews were put to death.

Ryan was director of OSI from 1980 to 1983. One of his main concerns as director was the Demjanjuk trial. And his office won its bid to revoke citizenship. In 1986, Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel for a criminal trial.


Ryan was sure he had the right man, and he made something of a career of his association with the case. He wrote a book, appeared as a prosecutor in a televised mock trial of Austrian president Kurt Waldheim and spoke around the country.

Slowly but surely, however, the case against Demjanjuk unraveled. KGB records released in 1991 showed that Ivan the Terrible was likely a different man, Ivan Marcenko, who was last known to be living in the Ukraine in 1962. The evidence was compelling enough to prompt the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to open an investigation into possible prosecutorial misconduct by Ryan and other OSI lawyers.

That investigation cleared Ryan of misconduct charges, but detailed numerous mistakes made in the prosecution of Demjanjuk. And it was the first legal document to say what Demjanjuk's family and supporters, as well as journalists and historians, had been saying for years--John Demjanjuk was probably not Ivan the Terrible.

Then, last month, the Israeli Supreme Court delivered the mortal blow to Ryan's contention that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible. Ruling that the KGB evidence established a reasonable doubt about Ivan's identity, the court freed Demjanjuk.

The decision was hailed by legal scholars around the world who saw it as the only fair outcome in a case in which the prosecution's central argument was that Demjanjuk was Ivan.

But the decision was criticized, too. John Demjanjuk may not have been Ivan the Terrible, but reliable evidence demonstrates he was almost certainly a death camp guard at Sobibor. Ivan the Little Less Terrible, so to speak. To some, especially to the many Holocaust survivors and their descendants in Israel, it was like letting Satan Joose on a technicality.

The ensuing hand-wringing has been massive. Some say the blame lies with stubborn Justice Department lawyers such as Ryan who mistakenly held to the notion that Demjanjuk was Ivan in an effort to have a show trial that would advance them professionally. Others say the Israeli and American prosecution's reliance on eyewitness testimony--unreliable because of the passage of time and painful memories--doomed the case.

The most enduring damage caused by the Demjanjuk case, which was used by many Israeli schools as a way to teach children about the Holocaust, may be to the ongoing search for Nazis in the United States. Eyewitnesses may no longer want to testify, Political support for maintaining the Office of Special Investigations is weakening.

And Holocaust deniers now have one more tool they can exploit in their constant battle of disinformation. After 50 years, memories of the Holocaust are fading. This is Ryan's legacy from his days at the Department of Justice.

In the end, Ryan's public statements, not his lawyerly pursuit of the Demjanjuk case, could potentially cause him the most serious embarrassment. The source of that could be his 1984 book, Quiet Neighbors, in which the lawyer indicates his certainty about Demjanjuk's identity.

"We had eyewitnesses who would place him at Treblinka," Ryanwrote. "I put the photos side by side and studied them for a long time. You son of a bitch, I thought. We got you."

Ryan, however, says there was no way of knowing about the Soviet evidence Justice Department lawyers, he says, did all they could.

Somehow, after 16 years of legal work, it seems as though everyone is back where they started. That includes Demjanjuk, who again may live on a quiet street in suburban Ohio.

Holocaust deniers now have one more tool they can exploit in their constant battle of disinformation. This is Ryan's legacy from his days at the Department of Justice.

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