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'Ivan the Terrible': the infamous Treblinka guard

John Demjanjuk, accused of being the infamous guard, Ivan the Terrible

When you hear the name Ivan the Terrible you might first think of the 16th-century ruler, the man crowned the first tsar of Russia who executed thousands, even his own son during a fit of rage. However, there is a second man in history who earned that nickname, a man equally if not more ‘terrible’ than the first. This Ivan was a guard at the notorious Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka and by all witness accounts, he was the devil incarnate.

As conflicts go, WW2 was the bloodiest in human history. Estimates place the death toll at somewhere between 50-80 million people, upwards of 11 million of those during the Holocaust - the Nazi genocide of Jews, Slavs, Roma, gay men, political enemies and those with disabilities. They were slaughtered en masse at extermination camps set up across German-occupied Poland. Whilst Auschwitz saw the most bloodshed, the camp at Treblinka was a close second. During its time of operation between July 1942 and October 1943, up to 900,000 Jews and Romani people were slaughtered there.

Like so many other death camps, the unsuspecting victims arrived at Treblinka by train. Their nightmare was already well underway. Upon arrival when the camp guards opened the carriage doors, they would often discover that people had already perished inside, succumbing to thirst, exhaustion or suffocation from the cramped and awful conditions they faced during transit. 

Those that survived were ushered off choking from the stench of death that had surrounded them for so long. They were then told they’d arrived at a transit station where they needed to be cleaned, washed and provided with new clothes before carrying on their journey to Ukraine. To conceal their murderous intentions the Nazi’s had even disguised Treblinka station to look the part, fitted with a station clock, timetables, destination signs and even a fake ticket office. 

The men were then separated from the women and children. All were then required to strip naked, after which the women were sent to have their haircut. The clothes left behind would later be searched for valuables whilst the women’s hair was grimly used in the manufacture of socks for crewmembers aboard German U-boats. It was then the victims were lined up and marched towards the showers. Unbeknownst to them, they were walking towards their death in a gas chamber. 

It’s at this stage in the process they would have met Ivan the Terrible. Said to be tall, well built and in his mid-twenties, Ivan was a Ukrainian who had fought for the Soviets earlier in the war before being captured and held in a POW camp. Like thousands of others, he would volunteer to serve the Nazi cause. These Central and Eastern European collaborators from the border regions were called Trawniki men. The SS set up a special training camp just for them and at Treblinka, Trawniki guards would manage the camp along with the SS.

The Nazi’s claimed to be able to ‘process’ a train of around 3,000 people in about three hours, reducing this to around 30 mins later on as they refined and mastered the horrors of mass genocide.

Ivan, along with another sadistic Ukrainian named Nikolai, was in charge of operating the Treblinka gas chambers. The method of execution at Treblinka was carbon monoxide poisoning. The exhaust from a tank engine in an adjacent room fed into the chamber, a method that differed from the cyanide used at Auschwitz. 

The victims were ushered towards their death by Ivan and Nikolai, both men said to heartlessly revel in this process. Wielding an iron pipe or sword, Ivan would savagely cut, whip, maim and torture people. One survivor spoke of how he nailed people’s ears to the walls and gouged out eyes whilst another spoke of rape and even infanticide. 

Yankel Wiernik recounted these horrors in his booklet A Year in Treblinka, ‘Ivan, was tall, and though his eyes seemed kind and gentle, he was a sadist. He enjoyed torturing his victims…While he did this, his face showed sadistic satisfaction and he laughed and joked. He finished off the victims according to his mood at the moment.’

On top of all of this, were other guards forcing the people towards the two Ukrainians who stood by the chamber entrance. Rifle butts shoved and shunted, attack dogs bit and tore flesh from bones whilst the guards shouted the most abhorrent of lies, ‘Faster, faster, the water will get cold, others still have to go under the showers!’

‘To escape the blows and the dogs, the crowd rushed to its death, pushing into the chamber, the stronger ones shoving the weaker ones ahead of them,’ Wiernik continues. ‘ The bedlam lasted only a short while, for soon the doors were slammed shut. The chamber was filled, the motor turned on and connected with the inflow pipes and, within 25 minutes at the most, all lay stretched out dead or, to be more accurate, were standing up dead. Since there was not an inch of free space, they just leaned against each other.’

Up to 500 people were crammed into the chamber, which measured around 25 metres squared. Accounts differ on whether the men were led to the chambers first or the women and children, but by the time one group had encountered their fate, it would have become apparent to the other what lay ahead. 

At the beginning the Nazi’s claimed to be able to ‘process’ a train of around 3,000 people in about three hours, reducing this to around 30 mins later on as they refined and mastered the horrors of mass genocide.

By the time the Soviets rolled into the camp from the east in August 1944, the Nazi’s had already ploughed, levelled and demolished any direct signs of the atrocities that had occurred at Treblinka. Former guards at the camp would later testify to their Soviet captures that Ivan the Terrible was a man named Ivan Marchenko who had last been seen in Yugoslavia in 1945. 

Although the Soviets continued to look for him for years to come, the fate of one of WW2’s most evil practitioners of genocide is still a mystery.

In the 1970s, legal proceedings were brought against a retired autoworker called John Demjanjuk from Cleveland, Ohio. He was accused not only of being a Trawniki man during the war but of being the most notorious of all Trawniki men – Ivan the Terrible. 

After extradition to Israel, he faced trial accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Demjanjuk claimed it was a case of mistaken identity although several surviving witnesses positively identified him as the notorious camp guard. In 1988, the court sided with the prosecution, convicting him and sentencing him to death by hanging. 

New evidence from the Soviets was provided to the defence a short while later. The evidence threw into doubt the credibility of the case against Demjanjuk and in 1993 the Israeli Supreme Court overturned his previous verdict. Although there was definitive proof that he had served as a camp guard at a Nazi extermination camp, it could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he was Ivan the Terrible. 

Demjanjuk returned to the U.S. a free man but not for long. In the early 2000s, he faced trial again, accused of being a different SS camp guard, one called Ivan Demjanjuk who had served at Sobibor death camp. 28,000 counts of accessory to murder were brought against John Demjanjuk, one for each person killed at the extermination camp during his alleged time there. In 2009 he was deported to face trial in Germany. 

He was found guilty in 2011 and sentenced to five years imprisonment although he died in 2012 pending appeal at the age of 91. Due to a technicality (his appeal was not yet complete), Demjanjuk died an innocent man in the eyes of the law.