Poland protests map used in Netflix documentary about Nazi guard Demjanjuk
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Poland protests map used in Netflix documentary about Nazi guard Demjanjuk

Polish PM claims location of death camps featured in ‘The Devil Next Door’ gives impression they were somehow connected to the Polish state

John Demjanjuk in a Munich courtroom, March 2012. (AP/Matthias Schrader)
John Demjanjuk in a Munich courtroom, March 2012. (AP/Matthias Schrader)

A Netflix documentary about a Ukrainian-American accused of being a notorious Nazi war criminal appears to have sparked a nationalist backlash in Poland with the Eastern European nation’s president accusing the US-based streaming giant of “rewriting history.”

The documentary, entitled “The Devil Next Door,” which was released on November 4, 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.

In an open letter to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings posted on Facebook on Monday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki complained that a map of Poland showing the location of Nazi death camps featured in the program wrongly gave the impression that the camps were somehow connected to the Polish state, which was occupied by Germany during World War II.

It is critical to “preserve the truth about World War II and the Holocaust” and “certain works available through your network are hugely inaccurate – and to an extent extent obfuscating historical facts and whitewashing actual perpetrators of these crimes,” Morawiecki wrote.

The show, he continued, “involves a map that falsely places several German Nazi concentration camps within modern-day Poland’s borders. There is no comment or any explanation whatsoever that these sites were German-operated. Not only is the map incorrect, but it deceives viewers into believing that Poland was responsible for establishing and maintaining these camps, and for committing the crimes therein. As my country did not even exist at that time as an independent state, and millions of Poles were murdered at these sites, this element of the The Devil Next Door is nothing short of rewriting history.”

Napisałem list do szefa Netflix pana Reeda Hastingsa w sprawie nieścisłości historycznych w produkcjach filmowych na tej…

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Mateusz Morawiecki‎‏ ב- יום ראשון, 10 בנובמבר 2019

Last year, Morawiecki signed legislation making it a crime to hold Poland responsible for Nazi crimes and banning the use of phrases such as “Polish death camps.” Israeli objections to what many saw as Holocaust revisionism led to diplomatic tensions between Jerusalem and Warsaw. Earlier this year, Poland pulled out of an international summit in Jerusalem after Foreign Minister Israel Katz, citing the late prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, told Channel 13 that Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.”

A Netflix spokesperson told Reuters that the company was “aware of the concerns regarding ‘The Devil Next Door’ and are urgently looking into the matter.”

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.

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. (Flash90)

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.

It opened the floodgates to hundreds of new investigations in Germany, though Demjanjuk’s death served 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.

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

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 had 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.

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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