How Terrible Was Ivan?

It was intended as an object lesson for Israelis too young to remember the Holocaust. On national television four years ago, an Israeli court tried a retired Cleveland autoworker as the sadistic "Ivan the Terrible" who had gassed thousands of Jews at Treblinka. John Demjanjuk was convicted and ordered hanged. But now new evidence suggests Israel may have the wrong man--a suspected low-level collaborator instead of a major war criminal. "It would have been a lot better if this trial had never taken place," wrote an Israeli columnist last week as the country's Supreme Court finished hearing testimony at Demjanjuk's appeal. Some of the new evidence:

In the original trial, five Treblinka survivors identified Demjanjuk as the guard who had hacked at victims with a sword as they filed into the carbon-monoxide chambers. But Demjanjuk's son later unearthed contradictory testimony from 37 Red Army troops who had served as Nazi death-camp guards after being taken prisoner. Soviet archives revealed that under interrogation after the war they had identified Ivan the Terrible as Ivan Marchenko, a man nine years older than Demjanjuk. "Identity is the heart of the case," says Demjanjuk's attorney, Yoram Sheftel. "Everything else is irrelevant."

Demjanjuk claims he was captured by the Nazis in 1942 while fighting for Russia and held prisoner for the rest of the war. New evidence suggests he was perhaps more than that but less than the monster Israel sought. In one Nazi disciplinary complaint, Demjanjuk is mentioned as having been a camp guard, although no necessarily at Treblinka. Before the appeals court, prosecutor Michael Shaked said records show Demjanjuk was issued a Nazi-guard serial number, 1393, along with weapons. Shaked all but conceded that Demjanjuk might not be Ivan the Terrible but argued that he was a Nazi Wachmann (guard) in other death camps, including Sobibor, where an estimated 250,000 Jews died. If he was Shaked argued, he is still punishable under Israel's genocide law.

The defense charges that Demjanjuk was improperly extradited. It says the Justice Department suppressed evidence and helped witnesses identify his photo. The department asserts its prosecutors committed "no misconduct" but that a watchdog unit is investigating. A federal appeals court in Ohio recently announced it will rehear the case. A reversal by the court could prompt the Israeli judges to set Demjanjuk free.

Most Israeli jurists predict that the Supreme Court will void the death penalty against Demjanjuk but not exclude retrying him as a Nazi camp guard. Yet traditionally, Israel has declined to try lowly collaborators without direct proof that they had killed Jews. Indeed, Israel's only other major war-crimes trial was for Holocaust planner Adolf Eichmann, executed in 1962. "Wachmann is not Eichmann," wrote one Israeli daily, urging that charges against Demjanjuk be dropped altogether if he is not Ivan the Terrible. Demjanjuk, 72, has spent six years in solitary confinement. With their case crumbling, authorities may decide that's punishment enough.