WASHINGTON -- So John "Ivan" Demjanjuk may not be Ivan the Terrible after all.
He is merely Ivan the Unspeakable, Ivan the Reprehensible, Ivan the Despicable.
And that is what the Israeli Supreme Court said yesterday in overturning his death sentence and ordering his release from prison.
Demjanjuk, a former Cleveland auto worker, entered the United States in 1952, became a citizen in 1958, was stripped of that citizenship in 1981 and was sent to Israel for trial in 1986.
And though a U.S. congressman now wants the United States to welcome Demjanjuk back, there is at least one man at the Justice Department who is going to do everything he legally can to make sure that never happens.
Neal Sher, 46, heads the department's Office of Special Investigations, which hunts Nazis. It is often a tedious job consisting of poring over old documents and checking immigration records.
But it is also the kind of job that affects you, that changes you, that doesn't let you go. Which Sher demonstrated yesterday in a most unusual briefing for reporters.
"I have been reading about this story for years, and it is never put in the proper perspective," Sher said. "Demjanjuk was not just a guard in one of the 'concentration' camps, as terrible as those were. He was a guard in the murder factories.
"In two years, one and half million men, women and children were murdered in these camps. Within two hours after reaching the camps, most were killed. There was no slave labor, no work. They were herded by the Ukrainian guards and slaughtered."
And there is no doubt, not a shred, Sher said, that Demjanjuk was one of those guards.
"It is absolutely necessary to understand -- people sometimes ask, 'Why are you going after some simple camp guard?,' " Sher said. "It is necessary to understand that Demjanjuk was no simple guard. Ivan Demjanjuk went to Sobibor death camp and participated in the extermination process. The evidence tying Demjanjuk to Sobibor is ironclad. And service at any concentration or death camp renders someone inadmissible to enter the United States."
U.S. Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, long a champion of Demjanjuk, issued a press release yesterday stating that, "Demjanjuk remains an innocent man."
But no judicial body, neither in the United States nor in Israel, has ever made that judgment.
The decision of the Israeli Supreme Court states there is evidence that Demjanjuk was a member of the SS, served in one death camp (Sobibor) and two concentration camps (Flossenberg and Regensburg) and held a job "whose purpose was murder and whose object was genocide and whose like is unknown in the history of humanity."
The court also found, however, that "reasonable doubt" exists that Demjanjuk was the "Ivan the Terrible" of the Treblinka death camp and that while Israel could try him for his other crimes, it was "unreasonable" to do so after keeping him for more than seven years in an Israeli prison.
"Let us make no mistake," Sher said. "He was acquitted [only] on the grounds of being Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka. To have served at Sobibor makes him no less terrible than to have served at Treblinka. The Ivans at Sobibor were Ivans the Terrible, too."
The reporters in the room asked questions about legal technicalities and points of law.
But Sher kept doing this highly unusual, very un-governmental thing. He kept expressing emotion.
"If you were in an auto plant in Cleveland, you built cars for a living," Sher said. "When you worked at Sobibor, you killed Jews for a living."
A reporter raised his hand and asked, in essence, whether Demjanjuk has been given every scrap of due process, whether every legal nicety known to man had been afforded him.
Sher seemed to sag for just a moment.
"Compare the due process Demjanjuk got to the due process the little kids at Sobibor got," he said. "I can't help thinking of the little kids. The little kids who were dragged and beaten and killed by the likes of Ivan Demjanjuk."
The reporters exchanged glances.
"This is about people!" Sher said. "This is real people we are talking about!"
As I said, a very un-governmental man. Thank God.