Demjanjuk trial opens - and closes

By Toby Axelrod, December 3, 2009
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Demjanjuk returns to court on the first afternoon of the trial. Attorneys complained that his face was not easily visible to the public

Demjanjuk returns to court on the first afternoon of the trial. Attorneys complained that his face was not easily visible to the public

The gathering began at 6am on Monday, outside the Munich District Court: journalists and members of the public, huddling together against the pre-dawn chill.

Ultimately, against expectations, most would be let into courtroom 101/1 to witness the opening day of the Nazi war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk, charged as an accessory to the murder of 29,700 Jews at the Sobibor death camp in Poland in 1943.

But such was the confusion that by the end of the first day, the court had not yet read the charges against Demjanjuk. And on the third day, the trial was postponed because the defendant was deemed by prison doctors too ill to attend court.

In theory the trial will resume on December 21, but there is speculation that Demjanjuk, 89, will now be deemed permanently unfit to face trial.

Germany was looking for a non-German to accuse

On one fact, prosecution and defence agree: during WWII, he was captured and held in a German PoW camp. But then, according to the prosecution, Demjanjuk was trained at a special SS Trawniki camp in Poland to be a guard. And he served — they allege — in Sobibor, where 250,000 Jews were murdered.

“If [Demjanjuk] was in Sobibor the same time I was, he was a murderer,” said Thomas Blatt, 82, one of the rare escapees from Sobibor. “All the guards were murderers. ”

Mr Blatt is due to testify in January.

For a case that is bound to awaken the sleeping German conscience, its first day began with bizarre elements that elicited not a few cynical laughs.

The first uncomfortable chuckles were shared over the area where the press waited, marked with a sign, Demjanjuk Sammelzone — the Demjanjuk assembly area. This bore an uncomfortable likeness to Sammellager, Nazi-era transit camps where Jews were held.

When Demjanjuk finally entered the court, there was a hush. Observers stood: everyone wanted to see the man.

On the first morning, he was pushed into the room in a wheelchair, swathed in a blue thermal blanket and wearing a baseball cap and eyeglasses. His meaty face was slightly tilted back, and occasionally his mouth formed an O.

A simultaneous interpreter sat by his side, translating the German proceedings into Ukrainian.

Defence attorney Ulrich Busch was both flippant and serious. He told the JC he hoped to be out of the courtroom at 5pm, so he could go to the sauna, because he would need it. But he also said he felt German courts were using his client as a scapegoat.

“They want to be acquitted through this trial,” he said. “Germany was looking for Demjanjuk” — for a non-German to accuse.

In his address to the court, Mr Busch argued that the judges and lead prosecutor should be removed because of prejudice against his client.

His reasoning: German courts generally have ignored those who gave the orders, and heaped charges on those accused of following orders.

Moreover, he said, the SS-trained Trawniki guards were no different from the “Jewish helpers” who had to clear bodies from gas chambers or had to be “kapos” to save their own lives.

He even compared the Trawnikis with Sobibor survivor Thomas Blatt. “The Trawniki are survivors, too,” Mr Busch said.

The court quickly rejected Mr Busch’s demand for removal of the judges and prosecution.

“A court that does the right thing now cannot be biased because other courts did not do the right thing before,” commented Special Prosecutor Cornelius Nestler to the court.

Mr Nestler, who represents co-plaintiffs in the case — all Jews who lost immediate family in Sobibor — expressed shock over Mr Busch’s comparison.

“The Trawniki guards in Sobibor were well fed. They ate and drank. They enriched themselves” on the belongings of the Jews. “They had vacations.”

Members of the public also speculated whether Demjanjuk’s frail appearance was a deliberate attempt to inspire empathy.

Attorney Michael Koch complained after Demjanjuk was wheeled in, on the first afternoon, on a gurney, wrapped in two blankets, dishevelled looking, and his face not visible to the public. Upon his arrival, a loud, patronising “awwwww” emerged from the public.

Mr Koch asked the court if it understood the impact that Demjanjuk’s appearance might have. The accused was wheeled out and, half an hour and one pain-killer injection later, he was brought back, this time neatly wrapped in his blanket like a mummy, his face visible, but unmoved.

On the second day, the charges were read. Only 29,700 deaths are linked to Demjanjuk, because they were killed during his period of service at the camp, and German officials had recorded their names and dates of death. A charge of murder or accessory to murder cannot be made with an unnamed victim.

Several co-plaintiffs who had survived the war in hiding testified, describing how they learned of family members’ deaths after the war.

David van Huiden was 12 when he said goodbye to his parents and sister in July 1943, “sure we would meet again”. They had been told, and believed, that they were going to a work camp.

“Would you get on a train if they said you were going to hell? I would say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. I am staying home,’” said Mr van Huiden.

The case against Demjanjuk

Born in Ukraine, Demjanjuk immigrated to the US after the war. In 1977, the Office of Special Investigations began to investigate his past, suspecting he may have lied to get into the USA. Ultimately, he was tried in Israel and sentenced there to death in 1988 for being a murderous guard at the Treblinka death camp. But the sentence was overturned in 1993 when the Israeli Supreme Court determined there was insufficient evidence that Demjanjuk was really the so-called “Ivan the Terrible”, and he was released, returning to Cleveland, Ohio, where he was an autoworker.

But in October 2002, a US District Court found that Demjanjuk had contributed to the mass murder of Jews by asphyxiation with poison gas, and that he had served voluntarily at several camps.

Demjanjuk eventually was stripped of his US citizenship and deported to Germany in May 2009 to stand trial.

Last updated: 4:56pm, December 3 2009