Netflix docuseries probes life of Nazi guard John Demjanjuk
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Netflix docuseries probes life of Nazi guard John Demjanjuk

‘The Devil Next Door,’ set to be released November 4, examines the trials of the Ukrainian-born man mistaken for ‘Ivan the Terrible’ who had his death sentence overturned in Israel

A new Netflix docuseries examines the trials of convicted Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk, who was mistaken for the notoriously brutal guard “Ivan the Terrible” of the Treblinka extermination camp and had his death sentence overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court in 1993.

“The Devil Next Door” will be released on November 4.

Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel from the United States for trial over his alleged role at Treblinka death camp in 1986, and two years later was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging.

But in 1993, Israel’s top court unanimously ruled Demjanjuk was not “Ivan the Terrible,” overturning the 1988 verdict and returning him to the US after it received evidence that another Ukrainian, not Demjanjuk, was that Nazi guard.

Demjanjuk later went on to be convicted in Germany of being a low-ranking guard at the Sobibor death camp, in a legal precedent that made him one of the best-known faces of Nazi prosecutions.

The conviction of the retired Ohio autoworker in a Munich court in May 2011 on 28,060 counts of being an accessory to murder, which was still being appealed upon his death at 91 in 2012, broke new legal ground in Germany as the first time someone was convicted solely on the basis of serving as a camp guard, with no evidence of involvement in a specific killing.

John Demjanjuk in Israel's Supreme Court in 1991. Demjanjuk was convicted by a German court for serving as a Nazi death camp guard. (photo credit: Flash90)
John Demjanjuk in Israel’s Supreme Court in 1991. Demjanjuk was convicted by a German court for serving as a Nazi death camp guard. (photo credit: Flash90)

It has opened the floodgates to hundreds of new investigations in Germany, though Demjanjuk’s death serves as a reminder that time is running out for prosecutors.

Demjanjuk steadfastly maintained that he had been mistaken for someone else — first wounded as a Soviet soldier fighting German forces, then captured and held as a prisoner of war under brutal conditions.

When they overturned his conviction in Israel, the Supreme Court judges said they still believed Demjanjuk had served the Nazis, probably at the Trawniki SS training camp and Sobibor. But they declined to order a new trial, saying there was a risk of violating the law prohibiting trying someone twice on the same evidence.

After he was released in Israel, Demjanjuk returned to his suburban Cleveland home in 1993 and his US citizenship, which had been revoked in 1981, was reinstated in 1998.

Demjanjuk remained under investigation in the US, where a judge revoked his citizenship again in 2002 based on Justice Department evidence suggesting he concealed his service at Sobibor. Appeals failed, and the nation’s chief immigration judge ruled in 2005 that Demjanjuk could be deported to Germany, Poland or Ukraine.

Signs in eight languages at the site of the Sobibor death camp in Poland. (Flickr/Sgvb)

Prosecutors in Germany filed charges in 2009, saying Demjanjuk’s link to Sobibor and Trawniki was clear, with evidence showing that after he was captured by the Germans he volunteered to serve with the fanatical SS and trained as a camp guard.

After his conviction in May 2011, Demjanjuk was sentenced to five years in prison, but was appealing the case to Germany’s high court. He was released pending the appeal, and died a free man in his own room in a nursing home in the southern Bavarian town of Bad Feilnbach.

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