John Demjanjuk was recently convicted by a German court of helping to kill some 28,000 Jews, and I am drawn back to his return to Cleveland on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 1993, after a decade of incarceration and interrogation by Israel’s legal system, which was unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was “Ivan the Terrible” of Treblinka. His return to his home in Seven Hills, on Cleveland’s West Side, would evolve into an international story, but one that the Jewish community in the more upscale suburbs on the other side of the Cuyahoga River took little pleasure from. The events of that day and its aftermath provide a lens through which to view the public policy struggles that ensue from post-Holocaust dilemmas, notably the status of war criminals living in our midst. In this particular case I found myself, some 18 years ago, pitted against the very Jewish community that I served in various roles beyond my pulpit. It was clear from other evidence that if Demjanjuk was not “Ivan the Terrible” he was still a “terrible Ivan,” but to persist in this debate and sustain this struggle once he had returned would stoke fires Cleveland Jews wished to avoid.
Many saw the failed trial as a bankruptcy of justice, yet to pursue further action seemed a law of diminishing returns. The more pressing issue for the leadership of the Cleveland Jewish Federation, which has always been the central force and voice of that community, was to contain the controversy and silence the protests. Seven Hills is a working-class neighborhood, in many ways worlds away from the prosperous neighborhoods of Beachwood and Pepper Pike. With the exception of a small Jewish population on the West Side and a small Reform temple on Triskett Road, established to serve the families of the scientists employed at the NASA Lewis Space Facility – a group, it should be noted, that was responsible in large part for the stirrings that begot the early Soviet Jewry movement – Jews came to the West Side only to visit Jewish cemeteries.
To protest Demjanjuk’s return, as was being encouraged from New York only by Rabbi Avi Weiss, was anathema to the “shtiller heit” ethos of Cleveland Jewry. The Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish federation, of which I was an active member, met a few times to address and attempt to suppress these rumblings. I vividly recall sitting at a JCRC meeting – which included representation from the Kol Israel Holocaust survivors group – in which all seemed in agreement to let the day of Demjanjuk’s return pass without incident or provocation. Meanwhile, the local media were following the impending return with great interest. Seven Hills residents had tied yellow ribbons around trees and the return had taken on the spirit and tone of a hero’s welcome. It was all the more reason for the Jewish community to remain silent and invisible on the issue. It was one of those rare issues that brought agreement from rabbis across the denominational divide.
My thoughts at first were also to let sleeping dogs lie. But the growing fascination with the expected return; the hero’s welcome; the talk of this “grandfather” being reunited with his family and finally being left alone and justice at last having been done; elements of a whitewash of history and Holocaust revisionist tones all began to coalesce and bother me. I eventually decided to take break with the stated position of the organized Jewish community lest the historical record reflect that on the day that John Demjanjuk returned home to Ohio not one rabbi from the established Jewish community in Cleveland stood up to say that this was not an ordinary homecoming. It was Avi Weiss, a New York outsider and I, a local, reluctant, newborn protester, a few members of the local Beitar group, and a local Jewish educator from the Orthodox Zionist Mizrachi School who would protest in front of Demjanjuk’s home at the time of his homecoming. Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, it was not a good time for trouble.
We were in the center of the storm and the eye of the world was on Seven Hills, Ohio. We walked into a phalanx of paparazzi. The story – with our photos, wearing striped shirts reminiscent of concentration camp uniforms, covered by taleisim while we blew shofarot – was carried on the front page of many major city newspapers. Demjanjuk, meanwhile, sought to avoid the media furor and landed in an undisclosed airstrip outside of Cleveland, having flown from New York on a private plane. He was then taken to an unknown location and only returned to the Seven Hills home some two weeks later, on the night of Simchat Torah, when the eyes of the Jewish community were not on his front door.
What ensued within the Holocaust survivor community is noteworthy. Having seen the protest covered in a breaking-news story, they were disappointed that they had not known earlier about the event. It would soon be discovered by many local survivors that the Kol Israel leadership had been silenced by the JCRC. An emergency meeting was called for later that evening. There was outrage at their having been muzzled by the establishment and a desire to right the wrong by marching in Seven Hills the next day. That meeting was a marked contrast from the chilling silence and submission earlier effected by the JCRC. This otherwise contentious group was now on this matter in unusual agreement. They would march with us the next day along with the educational leadership and some 18 middle school students from Mizrachi. In something of a fog on a damp dreary day, we arrived at the Demjanjuk residence which, ironically sat at a dead end.
With these two visits I felt my role and responsibility to history had been carried out. I had no interest in making any more of a point than what had been conveyed in the isolated event the day before, and now with this representative group of survivors and students. The second protest brought a somewhat redemptive tone to the aborted efforts and stymied outcome of the trial in Israel. Here before the home in which he sought a surcease from his oppressors we would proclaim his stained past in an intergenerational cry of conscience and culpability. Echoing Moses’ response to Pharaoh’s question as to whom did he seek to take out of Egypt here too we “went with our young and old, with our sons and daughters.” On Yom Kippur day in my sermon at Yizkor I spoke of “Why I Went to Seven Hills.” I was supported from within by my congregants and in the larger community by survivors but that is where it ended. The local Orthodox rabbinate called me a clown. Reform and Conservative rabbis, in keeping with the community protocol, were equally contemptuous.
The sight of late of this “elderly gentleman” in a German courtroom did not weaken the case against him. There is no statute of limitations on truth. Sixty-five years after the Auschwitz, it is even more urgent to sustain the historical record. My earlier experiences in Cleveland reminded me of a fragile link that many of our own people hold with history, and how a false sense of the common good can be summoned against our fealty to miserable memories of our people’s suffering. Current events and the growing alienation toward Israel within our own ranks; an inability, given our apparent unparalleled acceptance in society, to understand what it means to be outsiders with no place to go; aging generations of Holocaust survivors and the eventual disappearance of eyewitnesses to these horrors should only intensify our sense of obligation to protect and safeguard the Holocaust from any attempts to redefine its scope. The ease with which the Cleveland community had decided to “let this one go” became for me a tragic template of what time and distance from the actual events and victims can do to diminish and even deny the historical record, not necessarily out of malice but from a mistaken sense of propriety. In a day and age where our media reach and record allow us to hold onto every high-profile indiscretion, we should be just as vigilant with past horrors and larger crimes against humanity.
The facts of the Demjanjuk case are clear. He made a choice to serve the enemy to save his skin. We know of others who took risks not to collaborate. His story and that of any others we might still find has no expiration date, for its tragic outcome endures. How long and whether Demjanjuk will sit in jail is not as important as the point that he now stands guilty. Even as he sought to return to Seven Hills some 18 years ago, he ultimately could not secure safe haven from his heinous past. I really never second-guessed my actions, even if they set me apart and alone from much of my community. Somehow, I believed then that future events would one day justify my decision