by Lubomyr Prytulak

First posted on   www.xoxol.org/traw/letter-from-death-row.html   30-Mar-2010 10:07pm PST, last revised 04-Apr-2010  12:23am PST

The John Demjanjuk letter to Mrs Helen Raycheba, which is the subject of this paper, is placed within the following key events of his seven-year-seven-month imprisonment in Israel, which is how long it took Israeli Justice to conclude that it was not Ivan Demjanjuk but Ivan Marchenko who really was Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka.  If any doubt exists that John Demjanjuk's ordeal deserves to be thought of as Kafkaesque, then such doubt will be banished upon the recollection that the Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka for whose crimes John Demjanjuk narrowly escaped being hanged is an imaginary being that historians of the Holocaust, and more generally historians of the Second World War, unanimously refuse to credit in their writings, as is detailed in BLURB BIOGRAPHY.

28 Feb 1986   US Marshalls deliver a handcuffed John Demjanjuk at Ben Gurion airport
01 Oct 1986   John Demjanjuk relocated to Adolf Eichmann's cell in Ayalon Prison
25 Apr 1988   John Demjanjuk sentenced to death by Jerusalem trial court
22 Jun 1988   John Demjanjuk letter to Mrs Helen Raycheba reproduced below
Jun 1993   John Demjanjuk photo reproduced below with Demjanjuk still on death row
29 Jul 1993   Israeli Supreme court overturns decision of trial court
22 Sep 1993   John Demjanjuk put aboard an El Al flight to New York

The photograph below shows John Demjanjuk in his cell in Ayalon prison in June 1993, after he had been in Israeli captivity for 7 years and 4 months, and after he had been on death row for 5 years and 2 months.  As, at the time of the photograph, it was increasingly beginning to look like the Israeli Supreme court might bow to overwhelming world protest to overturn John Demjanjuk's conviction (and which was overturned a month or so after the picture was taken), the Israelis helped him to transform the appearance of his cell from that of an animal cage into that of a teenager's bedroom, at which time they took photos aiming the camera not at the wall of naked bars across the face of the cell, but between the bars, such that the photo does not even seem to be of a prison cell.  Also not visible in the photo is the light bulb glaring down on John Demjanjuk 24 hours a day, nor the video camera trained on him at all times.

As John Demjanjuk's cell is neither heated nor air conditioned, he freezes in winter and swelters in summer, and as it is June in the photo, he can be seen to have stripped down to essentials, and to be sweating from the desert heat.

And however hard it is to keep the pounds off when one is free to mow lawns and walk to the corner store and throw the ball for the dog and romp with grandchildren, being locked in a prison cell makes it harder.

And so what the Israelis create by way of cell and by way of prisoner, they photograph, and then they distribute this photograph showing Adolf Eichmann's cell at its finest, as if something like this was what John Demjanjuk had been enjoying over the previous seven years and four months, and even as if he lived uncontained by bars, but at the same time showing John Demjanjuk not at his finest, as if this is what he was by inclination or choice, rather than what they had made him — unkempt, sweating, and overweight.

And it is such images as this that the media disseminate as if they fairly depict John Demjanjuk, and images such as those showing him with strange or inappropriate expressions on his face, the defamers trusting that the public will be taken in by their trick of publishing least flattering pictures to make someone look absurd, by which trick anyone can be victimized.

And what does the press allow the people to know about John Demjanjuk's personal characteristics beyond such defamatory images?  Not much!  John Demjanjuk is represented as if he lacked the power of speech.  The media never quotes him, except perhaps once in a long while to repeat some exclamation, as of his dismay upon being sentenced to death.  They make it seem as if he has nothing to say, or as if he is incapable of saying it.  And certainly they never quote anything he has written, as if he never writes.


John Demjanjuk writes from Adolf Eichmann's cell in Ayalon Prison, Israel in 1993 Israel, 1993: Demjanjuk in his cell at Ayalon Prison.  Demjanjuk had been sentenced to death following his conviction of war crimes and crimes against humanity, a verdict that was eventually overturned on appeal which allowed him to return to the United States.
Photo and caption from  http://www.guardian.co.uk/~


Robert Crumb drawing of a frazzled Franz Kafka writing of imaginary injustice in the safety of his own lodgings
Franz Kafka by Robert Crumb

But behind this caricature of John Demjanjuk there exists a human being, a decent man possessed of intelligence, fighting to survive and to maintain his dignity under a relentless onslaught, and that human being can be seen in the above photograph standing where he could sit because standing keeps the blood flowing and the muscles from atrophying.  And that human being does have a voice, and he does write.  What does he happen to be writing in that very picture?  Undoubtedly a letter.  One of his few solaces during his years of solitary confinement is correspondence.  Some of it arrives on cards, which he mounts on his walls as space permits.  And below is an example of one of his own letters, one of the two whose handwriting is analyzed in FORGED AND OBLITERATED.  It is dated 22 June 1988, which comes two months after he was sentenced to death.  While writing his letter, he does not know that he still has five years and one month more to endure in his cell before the Israeli Supreme Court decides that he was not the imaginary Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka after all — that some other Ukrainian, conveniently a dead one without power to object, really had been the imaginary Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka — and he does not know that he will have to endure two months beyond that before he will be put on an El Al plane bound for New York.

John Demjanjuk lives through a nightmare worse than anything Franz Kafka ever imagined, and through it all he reads and he writes.  What education he might have enjoyed had fate placed him in a happier time or locale has been disrupted by the Kremlin starving his people in the Holodomor, and then by two totalitarian monsters, Hitler and Stalin, warring for the right to enslave his native land — because of which disruption his writing lacks educated polish, and yet to some it may seem of greater interest than Kafka's, because Kafka writes of imagined nightmares, hyperbolizations of what he has experienced, whereas Demjanjuk writes of experienced nightmares, and he writes in understatement of what he has experienced, in understatement because every word he writes is read by watchers who have life-and-death power over him, and who itch to exercise that power.

Reading John Demjanjuk's letter below removes the image of him as mindless and passive, and replaces that image with the recognition that he is quick-witted and decisive, not only in his manner of ridding himself of the obligation of wearing handcuffs during his exercise outings, but also in his manner of addressing a sympathetic reader.  Quick-witted and decisive, and courageous too — as evidenced by his accusation against hanging-Judge Levin, when he must have been aware that the accusation could be held against him by his captors — courageous as befits an inheritor of the tradition of Mazepa and Khmelnytsky and Shevchenko.

The addressee of John Demjanjuk's letter is Helen Raycheba:

Helen Raycheba envelope containing her letter to John Demjanjuk in Ayalon Prison, Israel

Helen Raycheba is a recipient of the Order of Canada:

Helen Raycheba Order of Canada


A translation of John Demjanjuk's letter which he wrote two months after receiving his death sentence, and five years before the above disinformation photo of him was taken:

Israel  22 June 1988

Most esteemed and cherished Mrs Raycheba!

I am pleased to report that on the 19th of June I received your wonderful card, for which I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Around here there have been big changes.  Formerly I was monitored by three groups with three guards per group.  Later they eliminated one group — leaving two groups with three guards per group.  However, formerly each guard worked 24 hours followed by 48 hours off, but once they switched to only two groups, then 24 hours with me and 24 hours off.  But most recently, they've made it so only one guard stays with me for 24 hours, relieved for half an hour to eat, and for 4 hours to sleep nearby me, and then he's off for 48 hours.

And whenever they let me out for exercise, I must be accompanied by three guards, one senior and two subordinates.  On May 27 a phone call came from headquarters to the guard detail — three of them at that time — instructing them that whenever they let me out for exercise, they had to handcuff me.  I immediately protested this, saying that on such an outing I would not go because this would be not exercise but torture.  And in about half an hour the warden of the prison himself came down to see me.  He's a very good man to me.  Young, but he understands the matter.  And he began to explain to me that it's not his decision, it's Israeli law applicable to all prisons, that once anyone is sentenced to death, he must wear handcuffs on his exercise outing.  Then I told him that I don't want to break your laws, but I regard them as

inapplicable to me because I find myself in a room which one may call a cage which measures 3 x 3 meters, and your letting me out consists of putting me into another cage, this one measuring 4 x 9 1/2 meters.  Three guards accompany me, and two cameras monitor my every move.  And on top of that you want me to wear handcuffs.  On such an outing I will not go.  He replied that he too was against enforcing this directive in my case and phoned his superiors in Jerusalem.  He reported back to me: "They said that if I wanted, I could exercise full discretion, which I decided I would do.  And so I won't be handcuffing you any more."  I thanked him, and he shook my hand, and went off.  And so they stopped handcuffing me.

They don't censor my letters any more.  They open my mail only to look for enclosures, and if there is money, they confiscate it and bring me a receipt.

I don't know if you heard that when Judge Levin read the verdict, he proclaimed that if Ukrainians had not helped the Germans, the Germans would never have killed six million.  From all this it is evident that I was tried and convicted out of revenge against the Ukrainian nation, and not for any particular crimes, as they well know that I am not guilty of any.

My health remains strong.  My spirits also do not decline.  I place all my hope in God.  And on good people.  Please keep them writing to me as much as possible.  I maintain the highest esteem for you and your family and for all people of good will.

Ivan Demjanjuk.         Please write

And the original of John Demjanjuk's letter:

Page 1 of handwritten letter to Helen Raycheba written by John Demjanjuk in Ayalon Prison, Israel, on 22 Jun 1988

Page 2 of handwritten letter to Helen Raycheba written by John Demjanjuk in Ayalon Prison, Israel, on 22 Jun 1988