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John Demjanjuk, accused of collaboration with Nazis

matthias schrader/associated press

John Demjanjuk, shown in a Munich court last year, settled in Ohio after World War II. Below is a copy of a falsified identity card alleged to have belonged to Mr. Demjanjuk.

NEW YORK - The stranger settled in Cleveland after World War II with his wife and little girl. He became an autoworker and changed his first name from Ivan to John. He had two more children, became a naturalized American, lived quietly, and retired.

Department of Justice//Associated Press

Decades later, the past came to haunt John Demjanjuk. And for the rest of his life it hovered over a tortuous odyssey of denunciations by Nazi hunters and Holocaust survivors, questions over his identity, citizenship revocations, deportation orders, and trials in Israel and Germany for war crimes involving the collaboration with Nazis at death camps. He was convicted and reprieved in Israel, and was appealing a guilty verdict in Germany when he died. He steadfastly denied the accusations.

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As survivors and defendants have aged and died, the prosecution of Nazi-era war criminals has become increasingly rare and difficult. Even at the end of Mr. Demjanjuk’s life - he died Saturday at a nursing home in southern Germany, his son, John Jr., said - questions remained in a case that had always been riddled with mysteries. Mr. Demjanjuk was 91.

Had he been, as he and his family asserted, a Ukrainian prisoner of war in Germany and Poland who made his way to America and became a victim of mistaken identity? Or had he been, as prosecutors charged, a collaborating guard who willingly participated in the killing of Jews at the Treblinka, Majdanek, and Sobibor death camps?

Ivan Demjanjuk was born in Dubovye Makharintsy, a village in Ukraine, to impoverished, disabled parents. He had only four years of schooling, and was drafted into the Soviet Army in 1941. In 1942, he was wounded and captured by Germans in the Crimea. What he did for the rest of the war was the crux of the issues surrounding his later life.

After the war, Mr. Demjanjuk met Vera Kowlowa in a German camp for displaced people. They married and in 1950 and had a daughter. In 1952, they immigrated to the United States and settled in Cleveland. The couple had two more children.

But Mr. Demjanjuk was stripped of his US citizenship in 1981 and deported to Israel, where witnesses and an identity card of “Ivan the Terrible,’’ a sadist who had murdered thousands of Jews at Treblinka, had turned up. The photograph on the identity card bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Demjanjuk.

He was placed on trial, convicted in 1988 of crimes against humanity, and sentenced to be hanged. But five years later, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the conviction when new evidence showed that another Ukrainian was probably the notorious Ivan. Back in America, Mr. Demjanjuk regained his citizenship, only to have it revoked again as new allegations arose.

Deported to Germany in 2009, Mr. Demjanjuk, suffering from bone-marrow and kidney diseases, was tried in a Munich court on charges of participating in the extermination of 27,900 Jews at the Sobibor camp in German-occupied Poland in 1943.

Last May, the court found him guilty and sentenced him to five years in prison. He was credited with two years of pretrial detention, leaving three left to serve if an appeal failed. Pending the appeal, he was released from prison and transferred to a nursing home. The court said his age, infirmity, and statelessness made it unlikely he would flee.

Even some relatives of the victims, who were recognized as co-complainants at the trial, said it was the proof of guilt, finally, that counted. “Whether it’s three, four, or five years doesn’t really matter,’’ said David van Huiden, who lost his mother, father, and sister at Sobibor. “He took part. He volunteered.’’ Mr. Demjanjuk’s son, however, said that under German law, a conviction is not official until appeals are completed, and that his father’s death had the effect of “voiding’’ the Munich verdict.

Besides his son, Mr. Demjanjuk leaves his wife; two daughters; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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