'The Devil Next Door': True story of Cleveland grandfather accused of being Nazi death camp guard nicknamed 'Ivan the Terrible'

Friends and family of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-American, insisted he was the victim of mistaken identity.

                            'The Devil Next Door': True story of Cleveland grandfather accused of being Nazi death camp guard nicknamed 'Ivan the Terrible'
John Demjanjuk (Getty Images)

As far as cities go, Seven Hills would be one of the last places on the planet that you would expect to draw attention to itself. Nestled in Cuyahoga County in Ohio, as of 2010, the city had a modest population of just 11,000, with no notable attraction that would draw in the crowds.

Except, all that changed in August 1985, when one of one its residents, John Demjanjuk — a Ukrainian immigrant who, like thousands of his other countrymen, had moved to the US after World War II — was accused by the US government of being a Nazi death camp guard whose crimes and actions were so horrific, he had been nicknamed 'Ivan the Terrible.'

'Ivan the Terrible' was a guard at the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland during the Holocaust that had been set up as a part of Operation Reinhard, the deadliest phase of the Nazi's infamous 'Final Solution.'

Ivan's job at the camp was to operate the two tank engines that fed the gas chambers that killed anywhere between an estimated 700,000 to 900,000 Jewish people, though, according to witness accounts, his cruelty exceeded far beyond what was the norm even for that time.

Survivors said he always carried a sword on him and that he cut off the ears and noses of the workers as they walked by, then forcing them to work as they bled. After they were done working, he would kill them.

He did not discriminate between men, women, and children, torturing them with pipes, his bayonet, his sword, and whips as he marched them into the gas chambers. Sometimes, he would cut off the women's breasts before he sent them to die.

Friends and family, however, insisted that the government had targeted the wrong person. They insisted Demjanjuk was not the person they thought he was, and that he was the victim of mistaken identity.

To those who knew Demjanjuk personally, he was just a family man who loved his kids and was the epitome of the American dream. Having moved from Ukraine, he had found work at a local Ford factory and worked there until his retirement, with all of his co-workers and supervisors having nothing but praise for his professionalism.

For someone who was allegedly so violent, he had never had as much as a traffic infraction, let alone something as serious as torture and murder. He was a man of faith and someone who diligently attended a church every Sunday with his family to offer his prayers without fail.

How is it even remotely possible that he could be who they're claiming he is, they argued. They pointed to the ID proof the American government had presented as evidence that he was Ivan the Terrible and said it was a farce, a fabrication. 

The ID had been handed over by none other than the Soviet government — with whom the American government was locked in a Cold War that was threatening to devolve into a nuclear armageddon any day — who many said had an ulterior motive.

The allegations against Demjanjuk had meant a line had been drawn in the sand between Ukrainian-Americans, who had thrown their support behind him, and the Israeli-Americans, who insisted that he pay for his terrible crimes — both groups that had been vocal critics of the Soviet regime were now at each other's throats.

Nevertheless, a judge found Demjanjuk guilty, and because he could not be prosecuted on American soil as the crimes had been committed in Poland, a deal was struck with the Israeli government that would see him extradited to face justice.

He was immediately flown over the same day, and in Israel, he found himself greeted by a population that was foaming at the mouth, desperate to see him hang for his atrocities against their ken. 

At the time, Israel was still very much reeling from the ramifications of the Holocaust and now found itself with its biggest and most high-profile case since they had executed Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the massacre who had been referred to as "Final Solution to the Jewish Question."

Demjanjuk's subsequent trial would be one that could capture not just national, but also international attention, not least because the whole spectacle was televised.

Prosecutors brought in dozens of witnesses who had survived Treblinka to recall their heartwrenching plight and to speak of Ivan's barbarity. The defense presented evidence which they said exonerated Demjanjuk. It was all balanced on a knife's edge, and the verdict could have swung either way. 

Demjanjuk's story and highly-publicized trial is the subject of a new documentary, 'The Devil Next Door,' which is now streaming on Netflix.




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