Prosecution of Nazi prison guard to be retold at program

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

What happens when evidence is discovered that identifies an unassuming autoworker, living in a Cleveland working class neighborhood, as one of the Holocaust’s most notorious Nazi war criminals?

That question is at the heart of attorney Eli Gabay’s appearance at the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) this Sunday, March 15, at 12:30 and 4 p.m., where he will share his first-hand experiences as a prosecutor in the State of Israel’s case against John Demjanjuk.

Demjanjuk was a Cleveland autoworker who was tried and convicted in Israel as “Ivan the Terrible,” a sadistic concentration camp guard known for maiming and torturing thousands of Jews as they were being sent to their death in the gas chambers.

Gabay, who also appeared in the 2019 Netflix series, “The Devil Next Door,” takes the message of the Demjanjuk case, that heinous acts can be committed by seemingly ordinary people, to audiences across the country.

“Demjanjuk had a small house, he had children, he was a family man,” Gabay says in the series. “He fixed the kids’ bikes. He worked at the Ford plant. He was a normal Cleveland guy. He was living the American dream.”

Gabay, a litigation attorney and managing partner at Solomon Sherman and Gabay in Philadelphia, was working for the State Attorney’s Office in Jerusalem when Demjanjuk was extradited there in 1986 to be tried as “Ivan the Terrible.”

“I was given a box and told, ‘This box contains the transcripts of depositions of a man by the name of John Demjanjuk.’ When I opened the box, it was unequivocal that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible. It was very important not to let this man get away,” Gabay says. “I remember the scene of his arrival in Israel. He (Demjanjuk) turned to the U.S. Marshal and said that he wanted to kiss the ground of the Holy Land. He wanted to show that here was the very religious man who could never have killed anyone.”

Demjanjuk’s request was denied, Gabay added.

Demjanjuk’s 1987 trial in Israel will be remembered, not just for the eyewitness testimonies of Holocaust survivors, but also for the defeat the prosecution suffered when Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict in Demjanjuk’s first trial, based in part, on written testimony from deceased camp guards.

“How could the court say to survivors ‘We don’t believe you,’” Gabay asks. “How could that happen?”

Based on new evidence, Demjanjuk was later deported to Munich, where he was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to five years in prison. He died in a nursing home there while appealing the verdict. He was 91.

Eli Mayerfeld, CEO of the Holocaust Memorial Center, says Gabay was invited to speak because his experiences reflect a core message of the HMC, that each person’s actions are a result of their individual choices.

“One of the most important things that we teach at the museum is that evil can live next door. It can live in every one of us. It’s up to us to make choices that we do the right thing,” Mayerfeld says. “We have to understand that each of us have the capacity to do terrible things. We have to recognize that if we are going to be successful in life.”

Demjanjuk, says Mayerfeld, made a series of choices that brought him to the attention of the U.S. Justice Department in 1977, and ultimately to trial in Israel in 1987.

“Our choices have consequences. In the case of Demjanjuk, each one of the steps he took was a step toward perdition. And it’s complicated. I understand he was a prisoner of war. That’s the point. It’s not easy,” Mayerfeld says. “The choices that we make in life are not obvious. We have to really think about them. And for me that’s the big takeaway here. How somebody who fixed his neighbor’s bicycles and was a quiet simple guy could have been a mass murderer.”

The choices Demjanjuk made, from falsifying his immigration application to his actions in the death camps, underlie the reason Gabay talks about his experiences as a prosecutor in the Demjanjuk trial, says Mayerfeld.

“Gabay is coming because he wants this story to be known. These stories have to get told,” Mayerfeld. “We should not shake this off and say Demjanjuk is from another planet. He’s not. He’s our next-door neighbor. These are behaviors, and when called upon, we have to make the right choices.”

Mayerfeld hopes that those who attend Gabay’s talk on March 15 will walk away with a greater understanding of what they can do to diminish the power of the Demjanjuks of the world.

“I want people to leave this building and ask themselves what they need to do differently,” Mayerfeld said. “When you leave here, we’re not going to tell you what we want you to do or how to act, but we do want you do to something different.”

Gabay’s March 15 talk is free for members of the Holocaust Memorial Center. For more information, visit holocaustcenter.org/march.

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