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War criminal who denied he was Nazi guard

John Demjanjuk, who has died aged 91, was a former Soviet peasant convicted in 1988 of war crimes, having been identified as the notorious Treblinka death-camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible.

At the end of his trial in Israel, sentenced to death for the murder of countless Jews as well as further sadistic acts of extraordinary violence, Demjanjuk -- as he had done throughout -- protested his innocence in broken Hebrew before being taken away and placed in solitary confinement to await the hangman.

In fact, long before the trial, there had been doubts about Demjanjuk's true identity, and these were later strengthened by files from Soviet wartime archives. The man in the dock was a bulky, pasty-faced, 68-year-old Ford car worker from Cleveland, Ohio.

The question of whether he had also been the monster of Treblinka, where an estimated 850,000 Jews were slaughtered during World War Two, was never settled beyond doubt.

In 1993, five years after his trial, Demjanjuk was freed by Israeli supreme court judges who ruled there was insufficient evidence to show that he had been Ivan the Terrible. Nevertheless, their judgment indicated that although they could not find him guilty beyond reasonable doubt, they also doubted that he was innocent.

Documentary evidence seemed conclusively to identify Demjanjuk as a graduate of Trawniki, an SS training school in Poland. From there, he had been posted to the death camp at Sobibor; a scar left by a surgically removed SS tattoo indicating his blood group, along with an account of his activities during World War Two -- riddled with contradictions and sinister coincidences -- appeared to confirm this.

In December 2009, Demjanjuk, 89 years old and deeply sick, went on trial again, this time in Munich, where he was wheeled into court each day strapped to a gurney.

In May 2011, the German court convicted him of helping to murder almost 30,000 Jews at Sobibor, amounting to the number killed during the period when he was a guard there.

A total of a quarter of a million people were murdered at the death camp. "The court is convinced that the defendant served as a guard at Sobibor from March 27, 1943, to mid-September 1943," said presiding Judge Ralph Alt, sentencing him to five years in jail. "As guard, he took part in the murder of at least 28,000 people."

John Demjanjuk was born Iwan Nikolai Demjanjuk on April 3, 1920, at Dubovye Makhatintsy, a village in the Ukraine. His family was said to be religious and therefore anti-Soviet, and possibly anti-Semitic, too; many rural Ukrainians blamed Jews for their impoverishment.

Demjanjuk was driving a tractor on a collective farm when he was called up by the Soviet Army in late 1940. Serving in an artillery unit when the Germans invaded Russia, he was wounded in the autumn of 1941 and bore a scar on his back for the rest of his life.

He returned to the front line with the Red Army until he was captured by the Nazis in the eastern Crimea in May 1942 and held at the Rovno prisoner-of-war transit camp in Poland. The question of what happened next would come to dominate the rest of his life.

Demjanjuk insisted he was incarcerated in the notorious prison camp at Chelm in eastern Poland and that as the war came to an end he joined the Vlasov army, drawn by the Germans from the ranks of Soviet prisoners and ordered to fight Stalin's troops. When the conflict ended, he spent six years in a camp for displaced persons, working as a driver for the US Army and emigrating to the United States in 1951.

According to prosecutors, however, Demjanjuk was recruited from Rovno and trained at Trawniki as an SS guard, before being sent to work at Sobibor and posted to Treblinka.

After six years in America, Demjanjuk adopted the name John and, in 1958, with his wife Vera -- whom he had met and married in the displaced persons' camp -- applied for American citizenship. By now he had a steady job on the Ford assembly line and had bought his first house in Cleveland.

By the time he was arrested in 1981, he was living in retirement in a bungalow in the Cleveland suburb of Seven Hills.

There were serious contradictions in Demjanjuk's account, however, as well as much that was left out. He explained this by saying he had forgotten many events of 40 years before, but what he could not explain was an SS identification card from Trawniki that placed him in the camps.

What seemed to clinch the case against Demjanjuk was the gut-wrenching testimony of survivors of Treblinka. "Ivan would push people into the gas chambers," one recalled, "slashing them with a bayonet. He would split open their heads, cut off ears, gouge out eyes and rip open the bellies of pregnant women."

But this, in the opinion of some leading jurists, was not enough. "The prosecution's case," declared a former Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, "rested on identification by witnesses over 40 years later. But we all know how mistakes are made by witnesses at identification parades here."

In 2011, doubt was cast on the very identity card that had seemed so damning, with FBI analysis appearing to show it might have been tampered with.

His conviction in Germany meant that, despite the efforts of his family to repatriate him, Demjanjuk lived out his last days in a Bavarian nursing home, to which he had been released pending his appeal of a five-year sentence.

John Demjanjuk is survived by his wife, their two daughters and a son. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent