When John Demjanjuk died in a German nursing home in 2012, he was in the midst of appealing a guilty verdict accusing him of acting as an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews at Sobibor. To the end, Demjanjuk denied that he had ever stepped foot in the Nazi extermination camp. But two newly released photographs may prove otherwise.
On Tuesday, experts speaking at Berlin’s Topography of Terror museum presented a previously unseen collection of 361 photos that once belonged to Johann Niemann, deputy commander of Sobibor between September 1942 and October 1943. Two of the images “probably show Demjanjuk,” said historian Martin Cueppers, as quoted by Reuters’ Madeline Chambers.
The identification was based on historic research and modern biometric technology, which measures anatomical or physiological characteristics.
“We had a suspicion it was him and we were able to enlist the support of the state police,” explained Cueppers, as reported by Erik Kirschbaum of the Los Angeles Times. “They used modern investigation tools such as biometrics to conclude ‘this is the same person’ as Demjanjuk.”
This revelation marks the latest chapter in the long, convoluted story surrounding Demjanjuk’s wartime actions, a saga most recently depicted in the Netflix documentary series “The Devil Next Door.”
Born in Ukraine in 1920, Demjanjuk emigrated to the United States in 1952 and settled with his family in Cleveland. Working as a mechanic at a Ford plant, he lived a quiet, suburban life—at least until 1977, when the Justice Department sued to revoke his citizenship, claiming he had lied on his immigration papers to conceal war crimes committed at another Nazi extermination camp, Treblinka.
Demjanjuk’s citizenship was ultimately rescinded, and in 1986, he was extradited to Israel to stand trial. Accused of being “Ivan the Terrible,” a sadistic guard who beat and tortured camp prisoners, according to survivor testimony, Demjanjuk was found guilty and sentenced to death. The Israeli Supreme Court, however, overturned the conviction, citing evidence that Ivan the Terrible was in fact a different man.
Demjanjuk returned to the United States, only for his citizenship to be revoked once again after the government accused him of working as a guard at several camps, including Sobibor. He was deported to Germany, where prosecutors presented various pieces of evidence suggesting Demjanjuk was one of the “Trawniki Men”—Soviet prisoners of war who were recruited by the Nazis to work as guards at the Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka killing centers.
“At the trial, prosecutors said Demjanjuk’s job at Sobibor was to lead Jews to the gas chambers to be killed,” writes Mahita Gajanan for Time. “Included in their evidence was an ID card showing that Demjanjuk was transferred from the Nazi training camp Trawniki to Sobibor.”
Demjanjuk was convicted by a Munich court in 2011. According to the Los Angeles Times, he admitted he had been drafted into the Soviet Army in 1941 and held as a prisoner of war in Germany and Poland, but denied the grave accusations leveled against him. Because his appeal was still pending when he died, he is now legally presumed innocent.
Prior to the Sobibor Perpetrator Collection’s unveiling, experts had never found any photographic evidence placing Demjanjuk at Sobibor, creating a gap in knowledge that accounts for the newly released images’ significance.
“[T]his is a piece of hard evidence, and there was not a lot of hard evidence at Demjanjuk’s trial,” said Hajo Funke, a historian at Berlin’s Free University, per the Los Angeles Times.
Demjanjuk’s son, John Demjanjuk Jr., dismissed the possible identification as “baseless,” telling the Associated Press’ Kerstin Sopke and Geir Moulson that “the photos are not proof of my father being in Sobibor and may even exculpate him once forensically examined.”
But the trove of images, which was released by Niemann’s descendants and will now join the collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, undoubtedly holds significance beyond Demjanjuk’s case. Previously, historians knew of only two photos taken at Sobibor while it was still operational; the camp was dismantled after a prisoner revolt in 1943. The Niemann collection includes 49 images from Sobibor, among them photographs that show Nazi camp leaders drinking on a terrace and Niemann, perched on horseback, gazing at the tracks where deportation trains arrived.
The photos, said Cueppers, are a “quantum leap in the visual record on the Holocaust in occupied Poland.”