Wheeled into court to hisses from accusers

Holocaust survivors witness opening of controversial case to prove 89-year-old was complicit in deaths of 29,000 Jews
Click to follow
The Independent Online

He is alleged to be the last Nazi mass murderer ever likely to stand trial but John Demjanjuk cut a strange and pathetic figure as he was wheeled into a heavily guarded Munich courtroom on a hospital bed to face charges of complicity in the murder of more than 29,000 Jews during the Second World War.

The 89-year-old former car factory worker, alleged to have been a guard at the Nazi-run Sobibor extermination camp in German-occupied Poland, lay slouched on the bed, covered in luminous green hospital blankets as he was pushed into the packed, brightly lit octagonal-shaped courtroom.

Opposite sat 22 people whose relatives died at Sobibor, among them Robert Cohen who survived the war in the Auschwitz death camp after his parents were murdered in Sobibor. A gaunt man in his eighties, he rolled back his sleeve to display the number that was tattooed into his arm on his arrival at the camp. "I'm here because it is my duty towards my parents and my brother and for millions of others who were murdered by the Nazis. If Demjanjuk was at Sobibor," Mr Cohen added, "then he would have killed 100 people a day – yes 100 a day, just imagine that."

But Mr Demjanjuk remained impassive. Underneath his hospital bedding he was clad in the same black leather jacket and baseball cap he was wearing when he was extradited from America to Germany earlier this year. He kept his eyes shut during the whole proceedings. His occasionally gaping but silent and toothless mouth gave him the peculiar appearance of a freshly landed fish. The mostly elderly relatives of the 29,579 Jews gassed, shot or clubbed to death in the Sobibor camp in the summer of 1943, while Mr Demjanjuk allegedly worked as a guard at the camp, stared intently at the figure bundled up at the back of the court wearing red and grey trainers that stuck out from the foot of his bed.

Mr Demjanjuk said absolutely nothing during the proceedings. But his doctors said that, despite his morose appearance, he was fit to stand trial although he suffered from chronic bone marrow disease, high blood pressure, gout and several other debilitating ailments.

Yet it was impossible to detect whether his frailty was genuine or simply a continuation of a long-running, elaborate and sometimes theatrical bid by the Ukrainian alleged Nazi turned Ford car company worker in the United States, to escape conviction for the crimes of which he is accused.

His trial opened in Germany yesterday with a moment of high drama as his defence deployed every legal trick in the book to have the proceedings declared null and void. Ulrich Busch, one of Mr Demjanjuk's two lawyers, provoked hisses and boos in court after arguing that Mr Demjanjuk's appearance in court was part of a show trial which aimed to "rehabilitate" Germany's image. "The accused has been deported from his home in America and taken on a 7,000-kilometre trip to Germany to face trial, but nobody knows what he is supposed to have done," he insisted.

But Mr Busch provoked even more boos from the victims' relatives after he tried to defend the role of "foreign" concentration camp guards who were trained at the Travniki camp near Sobibor, as Mr Demjanjuk is alleged to have been. He claimed that they were nothing like the German SS men who were in charge of extermination camps and that they were forced to do menial jobs. "They were just like the Jews who were forced to work in the gas chambers. Either they did their job or were killed themselves," he claimed.

But his argument was angrily rebuffed by Cornelius Nestle, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs. "The Travniki men were well-fed, they were given drink, they were able to profit from the property they looted from the prisoners and they were allowed to take holidays. None of this was permitted for the Jews," he said.

Prosecutors at the trial are trying to prove beyond doubt that Mr Demjanjuk was genuinely a guard at Sobibor when 15 trains packed with 29,579 Dutch Jews were dispatched to the camp in the summer of 1943. Sobibor was a pure so-called "extermination" camp designed to murder those who arrived there as quickly as possible.

Evidence that will be read out in court will describe how Sobibor's victims were pulled off the trains and told they had to take a bath before they began a supposed work schedule. They were then stripped naked and herded 80 at a time into a tiny room measuring 12 foot by 12. Instead of the notorious Nazi Zyklon B gas, Sobibor used lorry exhaust fumes to murder Jews. Evidence shows that it took about 30 minutes to complete each mass killing during which those trapped in the improvised gas chambers fought furiously but futilely to escape.

Thomas Blatt, an 88-year-old Polish citizen, lost both his parents in Sobibor. He will be a chief witness during the proceedings. However he has admitted that he was only at Sobibor for a matter of hours and could not positively remember seeing Mr Demjanjuk there. He said: "If he was there, there is little doubt that he would have been actively involved in the murders. Sobibor only had about 17 German SS men running the camp. The rest were foreign guards and they did most of the work."

Prosecutors say the key piece of evidence in their case against Mr Demjanjuk is his alleged SS card which bears his name and number. The card was handed to the German justice authorities by their Russian counterparts earlier this year. As a piece of evidence it was sufficiently incriminating to persuade the US justice authorities to agree to extradite Mr Demjanjuk to Germany to stand trial in May this year.

Mr Blatt yesterday avidly snapped photographs of the man who may have been responsible for pushing his parents into a Sobibor gas chamber. Would he like to see Mr Demjanjuk sentenced to death if he was convicted? "For all I care he could walk out of court a free man after this trial. He's going to die in a few years anyway," he said. "The only thing that counts for me is that justice is finally done."

John Demjanjuk: The long road to court

*1952 Demjanjuk migrates to the US, gaining citizenship in 1958.

*1977 He faces claims that he was SS guard "Ivan the Terrible".

*1986 Deported for trial in Israel.

*1988 Found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death by hanging.

*1993 Appeal quashes guilty verdict. Demjanjuk returns to the US.

*2005 A US judge orders that he is deported. After long appeals process he is deported earlier this year.

*2009 Charged by German court with more than 29,000 counts of accessory to murder of Jewish prisoners.