Netflix’s Latest True Crime Docu-Series Is About A Chilling Holocaust Mystery

At first glance, John Demjanjuk appeared to be a poster boy for the American Dream. A Ukrainian immigrant, he settled in Cleveland with his wife and daughter in the aftermath of World War II. He was naturalised as an American citizen in 1958 and had two more kids. He got a job at Ford, where he worked as a diesel engine mechanic for over a decade. He got along with his neighbours, and his everyday life had all the outer trappings of typical middle-class American suburbia. 
And then, in 1975, Demjanjuk found himself on a list of American citizens believed to have once been Nazi concentration camp guards. Several Holocaust survivors identified him as “Ivan the Terrible,” responsible for some of the worst crimes of the Nazi regime. His American citizenship was revoked, and in 1983, the United States began the process to have him extradited to Israel. In 1986, he faced trial for war crimes. It was the biggest trial of its kind since Adolf Eichmann’s in 1961, and a moment that captured the attention of the world as the twists and turns were broadcasted on live TV. 
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Demjanjuk’s story is now the subject of a Netflix true crime docu-series, The Devil Next Door. Over five episodes, the series delves deep into the controversial evidence for and against his conviction. Was Demjanjuk, as he and his family claimed, just a kind and hardworking father of three? Or was he the man who stood outside the gas chamber at Treblinka, cutting down women and children with a sword? Could he, in fact, be both?
There's a lot of information to grapple with, so here’s a primer to get you started. 
Who was Ivan the Terrible?
Ivan the Terrible was a Ukrainian-born guard at the Treblinka death camp in Poland, where nearly a million Jews were murdered during World War II. In a place defined by horrifying and violent crimes, Ivan earned a reputation as a particularly sadistic guard. According to survivor testimony, he took special pleasure in torturing Jewish inmates, and would herd women and children into the gas chambers using a sword, sometimes gouging out their eyes. He was then responsible for turning on the gas that asphyxiated hundreds of thousands of people to death. Yehiel Reichman, a survivor who testified against Demjanjuk at his trial in Israel and lost two brothers and two sisters before escaping in 1943, called Ivan “the worst devil of all at Treblinka.”
Where does John Demjanjuk come in?
In 1974, an American journalist of Ukrainian descent named Michael Hanusiak traveled to the Soviet Union, where he was presented with a list of naturalized Americans suspected of having collaborated with the Nazis. In 1975, he gave that list to a unit of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. At this point, the only evidence against Demjanjuk was a photo on an ID card provided by the Soviet authorities. He was recognized by accident, during an investigation targeting Feodor Fedorenko, another Soviet-born Nazi guard. Even as survivors denounced Fedorenko’s role in the Holocaust, they also pointed to Demjanjuk’s photo, identifiying him as another Nazi guard known as “Ivan the Terrible.”
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In 1977, the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions branch of the Department of Justice launched an investigation. In 1981, Demjanjuk’s citizenship was revoked on the grounds that he had lied about or concealed his involvement in the systematic murder of Jews on his citizenship application. Demjanjuk contested the claims, insisting that he had never been to Treblinka, let alone committed the kinds of atrocities he was accused of. 
Why was Demjanjuk tried in Israel?
Because Demjanjuk’s alleged crimes took place outside of the United States and weren’t perpetuated against U.S. citizens, he could not be tried in U.S. courts. He was deported to Israel in 1986, where most of the Treblinka survivors resided, and his trial began in 1987. Many survivors testified against him in court, sharing nightmarish stories about their experiences at Treblinka, in what was acknowledged to be one of the very last times an accused Nazi could be held accountable by his alleged victims. In 1988, Demjanjuk was convicted of crimes against humanity, and sentenced to death by hanging. 
Was Demjanjuk guilty?
That’s still an extremely controversial question. In 1993, five years after his conviction, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the decision, because of conflicting information pointing to another possible Ukrainian national as Ivan the Terrible. Still, that didn’t quite mean he was as innocent as he originally claimed. 
According to the New York Times, Demjanjuk regained his U.S. citizenship, only to have it revoked once again, this time because new allegations surfaced about his potential involvement in the murder of nearly 30,000 Jews at another dead camp: Sobibor, also in Poland. 
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In 2009, Demjanjuk was deported once again, this time to Germany. He was tried in Munich for the death of 27,900 Jews at Sobibor in 1943. Unlike the previous trial, no survivors testified against him. Instead, the prosecution relied on an SS ID card that they claimed belonged to Demjanjuk, and documents ordering a man by the same name to serve as a guard at Sobibor. In 2011, he was found guilty, and sentenced to five years in prison, minus the two already served during the trial.
Where is Demjanjuk now?
Demjanjuk died in a nursing home in Germany in 2012, at the age of 91. His body was flown back to Cleveland, where he was buried. The mystery, however, lives on.
The Devil Next Door is available on Netflix now
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