BERLIN - John Demjanjuk Jr. remembers well every moment of the day his life was turned upside down. It was in the mid 1970s and he was 11 years old, the son of immigrant parents living in Ohio.
His father would go to work in a Ford factory every day, come home and tend the garden. The family would visit the local Ukrainian church every Sunday.
The blissful family routine came to an abrupt end when the Demjanjuk home came under siege by a slew of reporters and camera crews wondering about his father John Ivan Demjanjuk's Nazi past.
John Jr. refused to believe the allegations against his father and has dedicated the past three decades to proving his father is not the man accused of forcing 27,900 Jews into gas chambers at Sobibor camp in 1943.
John Jr. was by his father's side during his first trial, which was held in Jerusalem, and lived in Israel for 18 months. So far, he has been unable to arrive at the Munich court trying his 89-year-old father for Nazi crimes. According to Demjanjuk Sr.'s German lawyer, the family lacks the financial means to be by his client's side.
Wheels of injustice
John Jr., now 44, told Yedioth Ahronoth – in his first interview with an Israeli media outlet since his father's extradition to Germany in May – that now, being a father himself with a family to support, he "prefers to navigate the legal battle from home."
"The trial is being held in Germany and I don't understand it anyway," he said.
The fight for his father's innocent has not been fruitless: In the early 1990s he was able to uncover documents proving the US extradited Demjanjuk to Israel based on misleading evidence.
The discovery led to Demjanjuk's return to the US in 1993, after the Supreme Court reversed the findings that branded him "Ivan the Terrible" of the Treblinka death camp.
John Demjanjuk in court (Photo: AFP)
Despite the new ruling, the US Justice Department is still determined to prove Demjanjuk Sr.'s involvement in Nazi war crimes. His son is equally determined to prove his innocence.
"I don't want to talk about me. I'm not the important one here – the person suffering in a Munich prison is," he said.
"This is a false trial which isn’t based on evidence. The German prosecutor has lured the secondary plaintiffs (relatives of the Dutch Jews who were murdered in Sobibor) into the case, while real Nazi Germans, ones that the prosecution has evidence against, are sitting at home, watching my father's trial on television."
Demjanjuk Jr. stresses that he is not resentful of the witnesses, who are Holocaust survivors. "We all feel for the plaintiffs, Holocaust survivors or their relatives. No one doubts what happened in the Holocaust – we certainly never did – but the Germans are using this trial to push their own interests.
"All they want right now is the convict the Ukrainian and by that to exempt themselves from responsibility. They've done little to punish German criminals.
"The secondary plaintiffs," he continued," were brought on the case in order to support the German prosecution, while it clandestinely plans to put Nazi murderers on the stand. I'm sure the survivors have no idea that these people are going to be witnesses alongside them."
Demjanjuk Jr. is especially critical of one of the prosecution's star witnesses – Samuel Kunz – a "graduate" of the SS Trawniki training camp. Kunz, also in his late 80s, is currently under investigation for being accessory to the murder of nearly 500,000 people in Nazi death camps.
Kunz has reportedly admitted his crimes to the German authorities, in order to frame Demjanjuk.
Demjanjuk's son has in his possession documentation implicating Kunz in the murder of at least eight people.
Demjanjuk trial in Israel (Photo: GPO)
Demjanjuk Jr. fails to understand the uproar his father's lawyer Ulrich Busch caused when he claimed the prisoners of war held in Trawniki suffered the same fate as the Jews in death camps - a supposition scornfully dismissed by survivors.
"For soviet prisoners of war, the situation back then wasn’t much different," he said. "There were 5.7 million POWs like my father and 3.3 million died in the German camps. That's half as many as Holocaust victims, but still, any comparison between the victims evokes such anger, but one that is based on ignorance."
He is aware of evidence suggesting that there were "volunteers" in Trawniki – guards recruited under threat of harm to their families.
"There were also prisoners of war who were selected… The Germans chose the strongest and when the POWs boarded the trucks they didn’t know where they were going. There is ample evidence suggesting prisoners sent to Trawniki were shot trying to escape.
"They were living under constant threat of death. They were not part of the German army – the Germans treated them like subhumans, just like they treated the Jews."
The devil's advocate?
Demjanjuk Jr. insists the prosecution hasn’t a shred of evidence to show his father harmed even one Jewish prisoner. "All they have is the testimony of one man, a former guard in Sobibor who has since died, taken by the KGB, and even that doesn’t state that my father committed any murder.
"This man is dead. We can't cross examine him. The Office of Special Investigations(OSI) in the US Justice Department had this evidence when he was still alive and they never even gave it to the Israeli prosecution. They agreed to let us have it only after we took them to court. Now this man is dead, and the German prosecution plans to use his testimony to claim my father was involved in murder."
According to Demjanjuk, the defense plans to use and internal OSI memo claiming the guard was an unreliable witness to refute his affidavit.
The OSI, he added, continuously buried exculpatory evidence in the case. "The OSI has the most comprehensive file there is on Trawniki. Even before the trial in Israel, the Americans had evidence that Ivan the Terrible, who worked the gas chambers in Treblinka, was in fact Ivan Marchenko, not my father. They chose to keep that evidence locked in a safe.
"They were willing to let the Israelis hang an innocent man in the name of the Holocaust. Even now, they don't care of Germany convicts an innocent man – a dying 89-year-old man – if it means it can exonerate itself."
"It's the same thing now as it was back then in Israel – everyone wants to believe my father is Ivan the Terrible. Some people, who don't know the case, still believe that. The same thing is happening in Germany now."
Demjanjuk added he is not allowed to contact his father. "He can call home every two weeks and we have five-minute conversations. He is not allowed to speak about the trial and there is a Ukrainian interpreter monitoring the call.
"He was treated much better when he was held in Israel," he concludes. "In Israel I could see him as much as I wanted and he could call home every week."