Ivan the Terrible (Treblinka guard)

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Ivan the Terrible is the nickname given to a notorious guard at the Treblinka extermination camp during the Holocaust, identified as Ivan Marchenko in statements made by other guards.[1] The moniker alluded to Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible, the infamous Tsar of Russia. "Ivan the Terrible" gained international recognition following the 1986 John Demjanjuk case. Already in 1944 a cruel guard named "Ivan", sharing the distinct duties and the extremely violent behavior with a guard named "Nicholas", is mentioned[2] in survivor literature (Rok w Treblince by Jankiel Wiernik, translated into English as A Year in Treblinka in 1945). John Demjanjuk was accused first of being Ivan the Terrible at the Treblinka concentration camp. He was found guilty of war crimes and was sentenced to death by hanging. This decision was later overruled by the Supreme Court of Israel.[3] In 2011 Demjanjuk was accused of war crimes as a different guard named Ivan Demjanjuk who served at the Sobibor extermination camp.


Treblinka was managed by 20 to 25 SS overseers (Germans) and 80 to 120 Hiwi guards of various Soviet ethnicities, including Russian and Ukrainian Red army prisoners of war. They were assisted by a cadre of Jewish inmates known as Kapos, who were prisoner functionaries. The name Ivan was not an uncommon name in the camp. Ivan is a common Ukrainian,[4] Russian and Belarusian given name. Volksdeutsche were known to have Slavic given names.[5] An example would be Ivan Klatt, or a Volksdeutscher who served in the Sobibor extermination camp, as the Ukrainian guard leader.[6] According to Rajchman six men called Ivan worked at Treblinka.[4] The vast majority of Hiwi guards who were trained at the Trawniki concentration camp facility had to contend with the language barrier. However, there were a number of Volksdeutsche among them,[7][8] valued because they spoke German, Ukrainian, Russian and other languages. They could also understand basic Yiddish. The German and Austrian SS command, local Poles, and Jewish inmates often referred to guards as Ukrainians not only because of their ethnicity, or because they originated from Ukraine,[9] but because they spoke Ukrainian between themselves.[10] Most of the squad commanders however were Volksdeutsche.[8][11]


Although there were more guards known as Ivan at Treblinka,[4] Ivan the Terrible was also referred to as Ukrainian.[12] His function at the camp was to operate the two tank engines that fed the gas chambers.[12] The motors had been installed and fine-tuned by SS-Scharführer Erich Fuchs.[13][14] Holocaust survivor Chil Rajchman testified that Ivan was about 25 years old at the time he worked in the camp. He was also known for his extreme cruelty.[12] Ivan the Terrible used to cut off the ears of workers as they walked by, and these people were forced to continue working as they bled. Shortly after, he would proceed to killing them outright. He tortured victims with pipes, a sword, and whips before they entered the gas chambers.[4][15]


Ivan's true identity has not been conclusively discovered. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, John Demjanjuk, a retired suburban Cleveland autoworker of Ukrainian descent, was accused of being Ivan.[1] He was tried in Israel in 1988 and sentenced to death, but the conviction was overturned due to lack of evidence.[16][17]

One remarkable event during the trial in Israel involved a star witness for the prosecution, Eliyahu Rosenberg. Asked by the prosecution if he recognized Demjanjuk, Rosenberg asked Demjanjuk to remove his glasses "so I can see his eyes." Rosenberg approached and peered closely at Demjanjuk's face. When Demjanjuk smiled and offered his hand, Rosenberg recoiled and shouted "Grozny!" meaning "Dangerous" (straszny means "Terrible") in Polish and Russian. "Ivan," Rosenberg said. "I say it unhesitatingly, without the slightest shadow of a doubt. It is Ivan from Treblinka, from the gas chambers, the man I am looking at now." "I saw his eyes, I saw those murderous eyes," Rosenberg told the court, glaring at Demjanjuk. Rosenberg then exclaimed directly to Demjanjuk: "How dare you put out your hand, murderer that you are!"[18] It was later revealed that Eliyahu Rosenberg had previously testified in a 1947 deposition that "Ivan the Terrible" had been killed during a prisoner uprising.[19]

On July 29, 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict on appeal. The ruling was based on new evidence, the written statements of 37 former guards at Treblinka (some of whom had been executed by the Soviet Union, others died of old age, and could therefore not be cross-examined) that identified Ivan the Terrible as another man named Ivan Marchenko (possibly Marshenko, or Marczenko).[20][21] One document described Ivan the Terrible as having brown hair, hazel eyes, a square face, and a large scar down to his neck; (Demjanjuk was blond with grayish-blue eyes, a round face, and no such scar.)[22][23] According to one testimony, Marchenko was last seen in Yugoslavia in 1944. According to the testimony of Nikolai Yegorovich Shelayev, a Russian Treblinka gas chamber operator, he and Marchenko together with two Germans and two Jews, operated the motor which produced the exhaust gas which was fed into gas chambers.[24] Shelayev and Marchenko were transferred from Treblinka to Trieste in July 1943 where Marchenko guarded German warehouses and a local prison. In 1944, as Allied forces approached, Marchenko and a driver named Gregory "fled in an armored car to the partisans in Yugoslavia."[24] Shelayev last saw Marchenko in the spring of 1945, in Fiume, where he saw him coming out of a brothel. Marchenko told Shelayev that he had joined the Yugoslav partisans. As late as 1962, the Soviet authorities were looking for him.[25] The Soviet documents created enough reasonable doubt to disqualify Demjanjuk, and his previous conviction was overturned.[26] Some of the exculpatory evidence that led to Demjanjuk's release in 1993 had come to light years before and was deliberately withheld from the Israelis by the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) of the US Department of Justice, which had urged Israel to charge him with being Ivan the Terrible.[27]

Gilbert S. Merritt Jr., judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, had this to say about the OSI's handling of the Demjanjuk case: "Today we know that they — the OSI, the prosecution in the case and the State Department — lied through their teeth. Even then they knew without a doubt that Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible, but they hid the information from us. I am sorry that I did not have the information at the time. If I did, we would never have ruled in favor of his extradition to Israel." Merritt claimed that what happened in his courtroom was "nothing short of a witch hunt. In retrospect, it reminds me of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts 300 years ago. The prosecution, counseled by the OSI, presented documents and witnesses whose testimony was based on emotions and hysteria, but not hard evidence. To my regret, we believed them. This instance is a prime example of how justice can be distorted."[28]

John Demjanjuk was later extradited to Germany on charges that he was another guard by the name of Ivan Demjanjuk, who served at the Sobibor extermination camp. During the trial, the problem of identity again became a key issue. Demjanjuk claimed he was not the Ivan Demjanjuk alleged to be a guard at Sobibor, and that the Trawniki identification card supplied by the OSI to Germany, and on which the prosecution based its case, was a Soviet KGB forgery.[29] On May 12, 2011, Demjanjuk was convicted pending appeal by a German criminal court of being a guard at Sobibor extermination camp. Demjanjuk's appeal had not yet been heard by the German Appellate Court when he died in March 2012. As a consequence, the German Munich District Court declared him "presumed innocent." The court also confirmed that Demjanjuk's previous interim conviction was invalidated, and that Demjanjuk was cleared of any criminal record.[30]

Ivan Marchenko is not on the Most Wanted Nazis list. Marchenko, if he is still alive and were to be caught, would be 108 years old as of 2019, and therefore unlikely to be brought to trial.


  1. ^ a b "In pictures: The story of John Demjanjuk". BBC News. May 12, 2011.
  2. ^ A YEAR IN TREBLINKA By Yankel Wiernik An Inmate Who Escaped Tells the Day-To-Day Facts of One Year of His Torturous Experiences Published by AMERICAN REPRESENTATION of the General Jewish Workers' Union of Poland 175 East Broadway New York 2, N.Y. 1945 (Chapter 5) http://www.zchor.org/treblink/wiernik.htm#chapter5
  3. ^ "Former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, Israeli judicial giant, dies at 94". Times of Israel. October 18, 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d Unsolved History: Investigating Mysteries of the Past by Joe Nickell, The University Press of Kentucky, 2005, ISBN 0813191378 (page 38)
  5. ^ Hitler's Last Courier by Armin D. Lehmann, Xlibris, 2001, ISBN 0738831212
  6. ^ Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team. Aktion Reinhard Trawniki Staff Page.
  7. ^ Gregory Procknow, Recruiting and Training Genocidal Soldiers, Francis & Bernard Publishing, 2011, ISBN 0986837407 (page 35).
  8. ^ a b Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps by Yitzhak Arad, Indiana University Press, 1987, ISBN 0253342937 (page 21)
  9. ^ Mirchuk, Petro. My meetings and discussions in Israel. A MEETING WITH THE 'DVAZHDI GEROY' (TWICE-OVER HERO) OF ISRAEL. http://exlibris.org.ua/mirchuk/r12.html[self-published source]
  10. ^ Tadeusz Piotrowski (2006). "Ukrainian Collaboration". Poland's Holocaust. McFarland. p. 217. ISBN 0786429135. Retrieved April 30, 2013.
  11. ^ Gregory Procknow, Recruiting and Training Genocidal Soldiers, Francis & Bernard Publishing, 2011, ISBN 0986837407 (page 35)
  12. ^ a b c Bill Ong Hing, Defining America: Through Immigration Policy, Temple University Press, 2003, ISBN 1592132332 (page 223)
  13. ^ Arad, Yitzhak (1987). Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Google Books preview). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 31. ISBN 0-253-21305-3. Testimony of SS Scharführer Erich Fuchs in the Sobibor-Bolender trial, Düsseldorf.
  14. ^ McVay, Kenneth (1984). "The Construction of the Treblinka Extermination Camp". Yad Vashem Studies, XVI. Jewish Virtual Library.org. Retrieved November 3, 2013.
  15. ^ Alexander Kimel. "Holocaust Bystanders – The Ukranians". Archived from the original on April 22, 2012. Retrieved April 14, 2012.
  16. ^ "Profile: John Demjanjuk". BBC News. November 30, 2009. Retrieved May 12, 2011.
  17. ^ In memory of John Demjanjuk, Kyiv Post (March 21, 2012)
  18. ^ Broder, Jonathan. News article dated February 26, 1987 in Chicago Tribune. 2d Witness Calls Demjanjuk `Ivan The Terrible.` Downloaded on July 8, 2012 from: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1987-02-26/news/8701160051_1_camp-uprising-eliyahu-rosenberg-demjanjuk-claims
  19. ^ Pyle, Christopher H. (2001). Extradition, Politics, and Human Rights. Temple University Press. ISBN 1-56639-823-1; Chapter 19. Ivan Who? Getting the Wrong Man
  20. ^ Nickel, Joe (2010). Unsolved History: Investigating Mysteries of the Past. University of Kentucky Press. Ch. 4
  21. ^ News article in Los Angeles Times, dated December 31, 1990. WORLD: Lawyer Asks Demjanjuk Release. http://articles.latimes.com/1990-12-31/news/mn-5769_1_john-demjanjuk
  22. ^ Williams, Daniel. News article in Los Angeles Times, dated December 21, 1991. KGB Evidence Reopens the Case of 'Ivan the Terrible' : Holocaust: Recently released files bolster the appeal of the man convicted as a Nazi death camp monster. Downloaded on July 4, 2012 from: http://articles.latimes.com/1991-12-21/news/mn-608_1_nazi-death-camp
  23. ^ Deseret News, news article dated March 9, 1992. `IVAN' FLED TO YUGOSLAVIA, DEMJANJUK DEFENSE SAYS; downloaded on July 5, 2012 from http://www.deseretnews.com/article/214340/IVAN-FLED-TO-YUGOSLAVIA-DEMJANJUK-DEFENSE-SAYS.html
  24. ^ a b Court Proceedings Extracts & Interrogations. Former Trawniki SS and Ukrainian Civilians serving in the Treblinka Death Camp. Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team.
  25. ^ Draaisma, Douwe (2012). Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past, Cambridge University Press. p.129
  26. ^ Hedges, Chris. Article in New York Times dated July 30, 1993. Acquittal in Jerusalem; Israel Court Sets Demjanjuk Free, But He Is Now Without a Country. Downloaded on July 4, 2012.
  27. ^ Raab, Scott. "John Demjanjuk: The Last Nazi." Article in Esquire Magazine dated August 11, 2010.
  28. ^ Melman, Yossi. News article dated November 14, 1997. "Who Lied About Demjanjuk?," Ha'aretz Israeli News,
  29. ^ The Local. "Demjanjuk's SS identity card was forged, his lawyer says." News article dated April 13, 2012.
  30. ^ Convicted Nazi criminal Demjanjuk deemed innocent in Germany over technicality, at HAARETZ.com, retrieved March 23, 2012, viz. statement by Munich state court spokeswoman Margarete Noetzel.