Lawyer braves storm of abuse over Ivan the Terrible case

Sarah Helm
Saturday 24 July 1993 23:02 BST

WHEN survivors of the Nazi death camp at Treblinka described the deeds of 'Ivan the Terrible' to a Jerusalem court in 1988, one man present, Yoram Sheftel, remained unmoved.

Seated on the defence benches, the short, somewhat unkempt lawyer looked on with distaste as the agonised figures glared at his client, John Demjanjuk, and shouted: 'There he is, murderer.'

'I had no sympathy for the witnesses,' Sheftel says in his dingy Tel Aviv office, where he waits to hear whether Demjanjuk, sentenced to hang in 1988, is now going to be freed. Sheftel produced new evidence identifying another man, Ivan Marchenko, as the notorious gas chamber operator at Treblinka. The Israeli Supreme Court will deliver judgement on Demjanjuk's appeal on Thursday.

'It is perhaps unfair of me to criticise them,' he says. 'But I noted that these people did the jobs given to them until they realised that they too were going to be killed. It was only then that they organised a revolt. I did not like them. There were thousands of Jews in Treblinka who preferred suicide. They said they did what they did just to be able to tell the story to the world. I do not believe them.'

It takes a hard man to say these things. And in 1987 it took a hard man to stand up before an Israeli court and television cameras and say that the man charged with being Ivan the Terrible was a victim of mistaken identity. 'I knew I would be the most hated man in Israel. I didn't give a damn.'

Sheftel was probably the best lawyer for the job. Only a street- fighter of his calibre - 'only such a schmuck', as one half-admiring colleague put it - could have ignored the emotion of the testimony and displayed the sheer tenacity needed to unearth new evidence. If the Supreme Court frees Demjanjuk or at least commutes the death sentence, he will owe much to Yoram Sheftel.

The lawyer gives simple reasons for his early interest in Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian who emigrated to the United States in 1951 and was extradited for trial in 1986. He says he was immediately suspicious when he heard that the sole evidence identifying Demjanjuk was a photo line-up before suggestible survivors in Israel more than 30 years after the events. 'I knew we were on the footsteps of a scandal.'

At times Sheftel cuts a faintly ridiculous figure, playing with his plastic love-beads, but then he redeems himself with blasts of disarming frankness. He claims that since the age of 11 he has been waiting for a chance to expose the weakness of the 'red Zionist', his life driven by a hatred of all things 'socialist or communist'.

Above all, he hates the 'weak, ghetto-minded Jew'. He is not religious - 'How can God and Ivan the Terrible exist at once?' - but he does have an idol: Meyer Lansky, the notorious Mafia boss. If more Jews had been like Lansky, there would have been far fewer deaths in the Holocaust, Sheftel believes.

Far from being 'soft on war criminals', though, Sheftel would have liked to have seen them all 'strung up'. Israel should have taken the lead in hunting out war criminals instead of cosying up to Germany to win reparations - or 'blood money' - Sheftel said. 'dollars 150 for every child that died in Treblinka . . . Israel should have had no contact with Germany after the Holocaust for 500 years.'

Soon after the trial opened, Sheftel and Demjanjuk's family - son John and brother-in-law Edward Nishnic - decided that the only hope was to expose the weakness of the eye-witness accounts. They became increasingly certain that evidence about the real Ivan's identity must exist in Soviet files, and that some of this evidence must have been passed to US investigators, who had apparently failed to hand it on.

The lawyer says he first thought the verdict would be overturned when in 1990 he interviewed a prostitute who had known Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka, and gave his name as Ivan Marchenko. Then, on a tip-off, he travelled to the Crimea to retrieve documents from Soviet investigators. The papers contained testimony of Treblinka guards, who identified Ivan the Terrible as Ivan Marchenko, a man who has since disappeared without trace. And from material disclosed under the American Freedom of Information Act, he learnt that some of this same testimony had been available to the Americans as long ago as 1978, but had been ignored or covered up. None the less Sheftel faced dilemmas during the trial. There is no doubt that the defence case was assisted by the US anti-Jewish lobby, a matter of distaste to Sheftel. And, while convinced that his client was not Ivan the Terrible, he had to face the possibility that he might have been a 'lesser Ivan', at another camp.

During the trial the prosecution had produced a Nazi identity card, handed over by the Soviets, which placed a John Demjanjuk not at Treblinka but at Sobibor, among other camps. Had Sheftel wished to accept the authenticity of the card, it would have holed the prosecution case, because Demjanjuk could not have been at Treblinka and Sobibor at the same time. But Demjanjuk has always denied all the allegations; and Sheftel argued that the card was a Soviet forgery.

The job of defending John Demjanjuk has been a lonely one. Dov Eitan, a respected lawyer hired by Sheftel to argue the case with him, committed suicide early on, some say because of death threats. Sheftel himself had acid thrown in his face at Eitan's funeral, and many of his family have stopped speaking to him. His recent marriage, too, is in ruins; his wife is reported as protesting that Sheftel forced her to stay up typing his book about the case on their wedding night.

But as the day of judgement approaches, Sheftel sits among his dusty pot plants in happy anticipation of new-found fame, the transcript of his book in front of him on his desk.

Sheftel is not entirely confident that his client will walk free next week: he fears that the judges may find a way to keep Demjanjuk in jail, perhaps on the grounds that he was a guard at another camp, though he has never been charged on these counts. 'He must walk free,' Sheftel says. 'Whether people will hate me less if he does, I don't really care. I will have brought on Israel the most humilating defeat in its history and, with the family of John Demjanjuk, I will have stood against international conspiracy.

'And,' he adds with a grin, 'I may have gained the reputation of being not such a bad attorney.'

(Photograph omitted)

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