There’s no genuine controversy here: John Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible. We know that for a fact, just as like we know for a fact that he was in Sobibor various series trying to make this into a “he said, she said” notwithstanding.
Ivan Nikolajevich Demjanjuk was born on April 30, 1920 in Dubovi Makharyntsi (Dubovyje Makharintsi) in what now is Vinnits’ka (Vinnitskaja) oblast in Ukraine.
A Red Army soldier during the war, he was captured and became a prisoner of war in the camp Chelm, where he volunteered to be trained as a concentration camp guard in Trawniki.
Several surviving documents establish Demjanjuk’s whereabouts during the war:
Doc. no. 1. Found in Vinnits’ka oblast archive. Trawniki service identity pass no. 1393 identifies a Ukrainian, “Iwan Demjanjuk”, son of “Nikolai”, born on April 30, 1920 in “Duboimachariwzi”, as serving in Okzow since September 22, 1942 and in Sobibor since March 27, 1943. This is the most famous document related to the Demjanjuk case. Deniers and Demjanjuk’s defense argued that it is a KGB forgery, but various forensic expert reports compiled for his last trial in Germany confirmed its authenticity (not that there has been reasonable doubt before that).
Doc. no. 2. Found in the Lithuanian Central State Archives in Vilnius. Disciplinary report of 20.01.1943. States that two days earlier 4 Trawniki-trained guards were apprehended for violating camp quarantine. One of the guards is identified as “Deminjuk”, with identification number 1393 (i.e., the same as in the first document).
Doc. no. 3. Found in the FSB archive. Transfer roster which documents the transfer of 80 Trawnikis to Sobibor on March 26, 1943. 30th in the list is “Iwan Demianiuk”, identification number 1393, with date and place of birth the same as John Demjanjuk. The date of transfer is compatible with document no. 1.
Doc. no. 4. Found in the FSB archive. Transfer roster dated October 1, 1943, which documents the transfer of 140 men from Trawniki to Flossenbürg. 53rd in the list is “Iwan Demianjuk”, with the same date and place of birth and identification number as the previous Ivans.
Doc. no. 5. Found in the German Federal Archives in Berlin. Flossenbürg weapons log of April 1, 1944, which documents that Wachmann “Demianiuk” received a rifle on October 8, 1943, i.e. a week after the person in document no. 6 was transferred to Flossenbürg.
Doc. no. 6. Found in the German Federal Archives in Berlin. Flossenbürg daily roster, which shows that on October 4, 1944, “Demenjuk 1393” was assigned to guard the Bunker Construction Detail.
Doc. no. 7. Found in the German Federal Archives in Berlin. An undated Flossenbürg roster of 117 guards, listing “Demenjuk” with identification no. 1393 in entry no. 44. The roster can be dated as created in the period from Dec. 10, 1944 to Jan. 15, 1945.
Doc. no. 8. A very ironic item in the list – Demjanjuk’s own “Application for Assistance”, which he submitted in March of 1948 to the Preparatory Commission of the International Refugee Organization. While he supplied false information about his residence throughout the war, he noted that from April 1937 to January 1943 he was a driver in “Sobibor, Chelm, Poland”. Sobibor was not a well-known name at that time, and the fact that Demjanjuk himself wrote it down (even while giving the wrong dates and lying about being a driver there) is highly incriminating.
Doc. no. 9. Finally, in his application for an American visa on December 27, 1951, Demjanjuk wrote that from 1936 to 1943 he resided in Sobibor, Poland.
So these documents establish two facts:
- Demjanjuk served in various Nazi camps as a guard; especially significant is his service in the pure extermination camp Sobibor, where about 170,000 Jews were murdered in 1942-1943 in gas chambers using the gasoline engine exhaust.
- Demjanjuk’s official name in the concentration camp system was “Iwan Demjanjuk”, with slight phonetically almost identical variations thereof appearing in various documents.
There’s not the slightest documentary hint of Demjanjuk ever having been to Treblinka even once, not to mention for a prolonged time.
His identification as Ivan the Terrible stems purely from identifications from very few witnesses, whom we’ll discuss shortly.
Ivan the Terrible’s actual name is established through an impressive number of testimonies – at least 38 of his Trawniki colleagues (perhaps most importantly, by Nikolai Shaleyev, another gas chamber operator, who is usually mentioned in the survivor testimonies together with Ivan) as well as other people who knew him. His name was Ivan Marchenko and unlike Demjanjuk he was born in 1911 in Dnepropetrovsk. His last traces disappear in 1945 in Yugoslavia.
Marchenko was neither a phantom, nor an alias. He was an actual person whose daughter was in fact still alive in the 1990s.
There’s a very superficial resemblance allowing for misremembering after 30-40 years, but that’s it.
So we know that:
- Ivan the Terrible was Ivan Marchenko, a real and entirely different person from Demjanjuk.
- Demjanjuk used his real name in the camps and thus couldn’t have used an additional alias since he was “Demjanjuk” in the official paperwork.
(This has to be mentioned, since there’s an argument going around the ignorant that Demjanjuk specifying his mother’s maiden name as “Marchenko” in the US paperwork is somehow significant. It’s anything but. Whatever the maiden name of his mother, it was JD and not she that was accused, and his name was not Marchenko, so it’s hard to see the relevance. And the maiden name of his mother is actually Tabachuk – he forgot it and wrote in one of the most popular Ukrainian surnames (think “Smith” or “Jones”). The “argument” thus quickly turns out to be a total dud.)
This settles the issue and completely trumps the weak witness identification evidence. We should note here that the German court that convicted Demjanuk positively excluded the possibility of him having been Ivan the Terrible – it specifically addressed this issue in the verdict.
It is still useful to discuss how false identification testimonies arose. Here it should be noted that we have an intersection of two problems at once here: the false memory problem, which was largely unrecognized at the time (cf. Satanic panic), and the very problematic area of visual identification, especially identification after decades after the fact.
One of the leading experts in false memory research, Elizabeth Loftus, chose not to testify for the defense (she explained that due to her Jewish background the personal cost would be too high for her), but she recommended her acquaintance, the memory expert Willem Wagenaar to testify in Jerusalem. He did, and then wrote a meticulously detailed study of witness identifications in the case, identifying Ivan. A case study in legal psychology (1988, Harvard University Press), a detailed summary of which with numerous quotes you can read in the appendix at the last link.
Basically, there were only 9 survivors who claimed to recognize Demjanjuk during the official interrogations. Whereas there were at least 15 (including one survivor who lived in the camp the longest, knew Ivan well, and was forced to help to build the gas chambers) who either did not recognize Demjanjuk or said he was not Ivan.
The first two witnesses who testified in May of 1976, Turowski and Goldfarb, did not recognize Demjanjuk at first. The third witness to testify in May, Rosenberg, said the face was familiar but literally “declined” to “identify with certainty”.
All other witnesses were interrogated from September 1976 on, which is significant, since on each August 2, the day of the uprising, the Treblinka survivors in Israel used to meet in Tel Aviv and there’s no chance the shocking “discovery” that Ivan was alive was not discussed there. All the subsequent positive identifications came from the Israeli survivors.
The fourth positive witness, Czarny, failed to identify Demjanjuk on the first try. Boraks and Lindwasser identified him with certainty. Epstein used phrases like “this is how I remember him”, “reminds me very strongly of” – so no certainty, and he also falsely identified Nikolay (Shaleyev) on an unrelated photo. Levkowitch made a positive identification, Rajchman took half an hour to reach the conclusion of “fairly certain”.
So only three witnesses – Boraks, Levkowitch and Lindwasser – identified Demjanjuk immediately and with certainty. Unfortunately, their testimonies cannot be shown to be independent since they were late and it had to be investigated what they knew before their identifications from the other survivors.
However Levkowitch did not testify during the trial (her testimony was withdrawn), Lindwasser died before it and Boraks’ memory more or less completely failed him during the trial, so the issue remained uninvestigated – but most probably their testimonies were not independent of those of Turowski, Goldfarb, and Rosenberg. Due to deaths and for other reasons only 5 witnesses testified in the Jerusalem court (Rosenberg, Czarny, Boraks, Epstein, and Rajchman).
During the trial itself the witnesses who were either not completely sure during the first identification sessions or did not recognize him at all at first, suddenly claimed they recognize him with complete and utter certainty. Which only shows that such confidence is not worth much. They simply convinced themselves with the time that they got the right man (and Wagenaar explains the psychological mechanisms of it happening).
Aside from the problems with the witnesses themselves, there were huge problems with identification procedures which were irredeemably flawed (due to the investigators either completely untrained or inadequately trained in such procedures). The photo spreads were completely wrong and biased (e.g. there was no one remotely resembling Demjanjuk among the foils, which made him stand out), the investigators were leading the witnesses, different albums with the same person we’re shown to the same witnesses (a no-no), the issue of the independence of the identifications was not even touched upon, the crucial negative results were not systematically gathered, and so on.
We have to say it directly: anyone still relying on these completely flawed and false memories has no clue whatsoever, which is not to blame survivors themselves, who were also victims in this case. If the blame has to be apportioned, we’d say the investigators would be the culprits (but even then apparently not due to evil intent but rather due to ignorance).
Plus even if we didn’t have the rich documentary and testimonial evidence that proves conclusively that Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible, the flawed identification results had to be thrown away and that alone would have destroyed the first case against Demjanjuk. So the first instance court is also to blame – for sentencing a man to death based entirely on obviously flawed evidence.
But, in the end, who was Ivan Demjanjuk? He was a guard in the extermination camp Sobibor (and also at Majdanek and Flossenbürg). He was sentenced in a German court for being an accomplice to the murder of about 28,000 Jews that were killed in the camp in the months he served there (though, darkly ironically, due to him dying before the appeals process took place he is formally innocent according to the German law).
Due to the rotation of posts he probably, at some point, directly took part in the unloading of the transports and driving the Jews into the gas chambers, though we don’t have specific evidence for specific cases. This was also confirmed by the Wachmann Ignat Danilchenko, whose statement the court found credible after close analysis.