The Netflix series “The Devil Next Door” and the tragic story of John Demjanjuk

Demjanjuk’s U.S. citizenship was voided in 1981, on the grounds that he had failed to disclose upon entering the United States that he was Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka. After a long court battle in the U.S., he was extradited to Israel in February 1986.

The actual criminal trial began in Jerusalem in early 1987 and was held not in a courtroom but in the large auditorium of the International Convention Center. Speaking today, Yoram Sheftel, Demjanjuk’s Israeli attorney, tells us this marked the first and only trial in Israel’s history to be broadcast beginning to end, with some 16 cameras in place to record the drama. It was, quite literally, a “show trial.”

A key witness for the prosecution was Treblinka survivor Gustav Borax, whose testimony was heart-wrenching and horrid. Sheftel raised the point during the trial that the gruesome details of what occurred at Treblinka had no bearing upon the identity of the perpetrator. He offered to stipulate or agree that such horrendous acts had occurred, only to be verbally slammed by Chief Judge Dov Levin and directed to withdraw his words or be held in contempt. One of the other Judges, Dalia Dorner, made the twisted justification that it is only by hearing the grotesque details of Treblinka that you can value the identification of Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible. Even the courtroom sketch artist, Joanne Lowe, jumps in with a commentary about how Demjanjuk sat motionless and showed no emotion, “He was just blank,” she said, insinuating that he was cold -blooded. Of course, if he had cried, she may have said it was a sign of remorse and guilt on his part.

At a critical point in his cross examination, Mark O’Connor, Demjanjuk’s American lawyer, asks Borax, the prosecution’s lead witness, how he happened to travel from Poland to Miami, Florida, where his deposition was taken by the OSI. Borax hesitates and replies, “We went by train.” The audience sat stunned. With his mental competency now in question, Borax was asked how old he was and replied, “I was born in 1901.” Later, he was unable to recall the name of his youngest son who was killed at Treblinka. Even Demjanjuk’s own lawyer enters into the Kafkaesque world of the bizarre when the program shows him at the time of the trial taking a lie detector test before a TV audience; and his answer that he does not believe Demjanjuk to be Ivan the Terrible is ruled by the lie detector operator to be “untrue.”