Man or monster

Netflix docuseries follows trial that determines if Cleveland resident was a Nazi exterminator



On the left is a more recent photo of retired auto worker John Demanajanjuk, and on the right is a younger Demanjanjuk from a war identification card that formed a part of evidence that determined if he was or was not Ivan the Terrible. “The Devil Next Door” relays the true story of the trials and appeals Demanjanjuk faced over the span of around 30 years in a mysterious five part series.

Emma Baker, Staff Reporter

Ivan the Terrible. It’s a household name for the survivors of the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland. Known for cutting off ears and noses, crushing skulls and shoving Jews into gas chambers by the tip of a sword, Ivan the Terrible may be one of the cruelest men of World War II. Could it be possible that Ukranian immigrant and retired auto worker John Demanjanjuk could really be that horrific figure?

That question started an investigation that would last around 30 years.

In The Devil Next Door, a five part series released on November 4th, directors Yossi Bloch and Daniel Sivan relay the harrowing true story of the Demanjanjuk trials. The footage from the court rooms, the broadcasts of the trial and the present day interviews of key players throughout the case were all pieced together masterfully to recite a line of events that kept my eyes wide and heart pounding.

It all started in 1985 when the Immigration and Naturalization Service received multiple survivors’ assertions that Ivan the Terrible was pictured in KGB documents full of Nazis that moved to America. 

Since the United States had no jurisdiction, Demanjanjuk was extradited to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. While some of Demanjanjuk’s active family and chief counsel, Mark O’Connor, followed Demanjanjuk there, they still needed more help on his defense. Fifteen Israeli attorneys refused to join before an eccentric lawyer by the name of Yoram Sheftel finally came along.

Sheftel, a member of Judaism, was an enemy of the Israeli people for siding with a possible Nazi, but it’s not hard for him to seem like an enemy of people beyond Judaism. I thought he seemed full of himself and in it for the money and attention more than anything else, making my hope for Demanjanjuk’s conviction even stronger.

Across the court, Israeli State Prosecutor Michael Shaked stood his ground, fighting the defense’s belief of fraudulent identification cards and bringing in several Treblinka survivors to testify.

The testimonies of those camp survivors changed everything. Survivors took the stand and pointed their shaky fingers at the man across the room with the sneer and rounded glasses, as Ivan the Terrible, solidifying the credibility of the documents, in my opinion. 

The judges weren’t so sure, though, when verdict day, April 18th, 1988, came up. Their decision rocked the nation, and people sighed with relief only of its finality. But the case of Demanjanjuk was nowhere close to done.

Was Demanjanjuk found guilty of crimes against the Jewish people, against humanity and against prosecuted people? Was he innocent, free to go back to his Cleveland home? And what happened when the Director of the Office of Special Investigations, Eli Rosenbaum, got involved in 2009?

I recommend watching to find out.  

Although not as thrilling as January’s hit docuseries “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” I found it to be very interesting, educational and filled with many “wow” moments. 

If viewers allow the time to get invested, it will whisk you away into a trial that gets crazier and crazier as it goes along. Twists and turns arise out of nowhere and small details that seem irrelevant end up playing monumental roles.

There were testimonies that ripped my heart out of my chest, lies that made me clench my fists and a surprising suicide that crushed my soul.

And the final outcome left me speechless.

I believe the series did a fantastic job matching music, clear shots and real footage from the past to honor the intensity and credibility of which the survivors are owed.

The Devil Next Door will, no doubt, result in a deeper understanding of the emotions, mysteries and weight of the remnants the Holocaust left behind, while keeping watchers on the edge of their seat.