Monday, December 7, 2009

Identity Crisis

On 1 December, the trial of John Demjanjuk began in Germany. If it doesn’t sound familiar, it should--but I wouldn’t be surprised if this sounds like news, because most American news agencies that I frequently look at (NYTimes, LATimes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, CNN) have been relegating this to their international news pages, a few clicks away from plain sight. This is why I have the BBC as one of my start-up pages on Firefox; I can actually learn what the news is, as opposed to learning that yeah, we still don’t have an exit strategy for Afghanistan. That’s nothing new.

But then again, neither are trials for John Demjanjuk. Demjanjuk has spent the better part of the last three decades embroiled in legal controversy. He first immigrated to the United States and obtained citizenship in 1952, at which point he got married and started the American dream life--work in a car factory in Cleveland, Ohio; have kids; et cetera. In 1977, he was first charged with war crimes, for being “Ivan the Terrible,” a notorious concentration camp guard responsible for the deaths of more than 27,000 Jews. The United States revoked his citizenship in 1981 and extradited him to Israel five years later, where he was charged and convicted for the murders--a ruling that Israel’s Supreme Court overturned for lack of evidence explicitly connecting Demjanjuk to “Ivan the Terrible.”

In 2002, however, problems arose again, with Demjanjuk once again losing his American citizenship when an American judge ruled that there was information linking Demjanjuk to “Ivan the Terrible,” most specifically a wartime ID that American prosecutors have used to place him as a guard at the Nazi death camps. Now, after being extradited and without any citizenship, 89-year-old John Demjanjuk is standing trial for the murders of nearly 30,000 people.

The greatest question amidst all of this is: Who is John Demjanjuk? Murderer? American laborer? Father? Husband? Racist prig? It’s a question that Philip Roth explored in his 1993 PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel Operation Shylock. In the novel, Roth--who has his own identity issues, as he’s being stalked and has had his identity stolen by another man whose name appears to be “Philip Roth” (the sort of blatant narcissism/self-ego-boosting typical when Roth makes himself a character in his books)--watches the trial of Demjanjuk in Israel during a chapter entitled “Forgery, Paranoia, Disinformation, Lies.” He listens to an English translation of the proceedings through a headset. Lots of mirroring ensues--Roth mulls over the legal history of the Demjanjuk proceedings, of his own doppelganger (the reason for his stay in Israel in the first place), and also the position of John Demjanjuk, Jr. watching Demjanjuk, Sr. being tried.

Roth writes, “Admittedly, the story of my double was difficult to accept at face value. The story of anyone’s double would be” before later commenting “Not everybody is crazy. Resolute is not crazy. Deluded is not crazy. To be thwarted, vengeful, terrified, treacherous--this is not to be crazy.” In this line of questioning, Roth wants us to consider two things: Who is Philip Roth? (Another version of this first question—Who am I?) And who is John Demjanjuk? What terrifies Roth in Operation Shylock is precisely this sense of doubling--that maybe out there, somewhere, there’s an identical stranger (who may or may not be me) for whom I’ll have to take the fall.

Read more about the Demjanjuk trial at

Roth, Philip. Operation Shylock. Paperback. Vintage-Random House. 398 pp., $14.00.

1 comment:

  1. Nice symmantical arguement. However, I would like to propose this symmantical arguement. If one man was once GI Joe, but is now Diablo, does Diablo inherit GI Joe's sin, is it possible for the two to co-exist, and if so does GI Joe still live in the rammifications of GI Joe's actions? And what is the relevance of Chuck Joe Hank?