JERUSALEM (Feb. 24)
A former inmate of Treblinka recited ghastly details of mass murder at the death camp under sharp cross examination Tuesday in the trial here of accused war criminal John Demjanjuk.
Pinhas Epstein, who electrified the court Monday when he pointed to Demjanjuk as the brutal camp guard known as “Ivan the Terrible,” continued his key prosecution testimony under relentless questioning by Demjanjuk’s American attorney, Mark O’Connor.
The defense contends that the Ukrainianborn Demjanjuk is a victim of mistaken identity. Its strategy is to demonstrate the fallibility of witnesses’ memories more than 40 years after the events.
But Epstein did not falter when questioned about details of the camp’s structure, the people in charge of the extermination process and such minutiae as where the laundry was hung.
He described the mass graves into which bodies were dumped. Chlorine powder was poured on the corpses to hasten their disintegration. “The powder sank down, causing blood to burst from the ground. Then they added more bodies and more powder,” the witness said.
Epstein, who was brought to Treblinka at the age of 17, spoke of ” the man in the white coat,” known to inmates only as Erwin, who stood at the edge of the mass grave and ordered the killing of those victims not yet dead.
“When a wounded person was brought to the edge of the grave, Erwin used to order him to crouch on his hands and knees, naked at the edge of the pit. Then he would signal a Ukrainian guard to come over and shoot the victim through his head,” Epstein said.
The trial, now in its second week before a three-judge panel of the Jerusalem District Court, has been marked increasingly by emotional outbursts from spectators, many of them Holocaust survivors. At a recess Tuesday, several survivors hurled oaths at the defendant’s son, John Demjanjuk Jr. and against Ukrainians who were involved in the murder of their families. Police intervened to restore order.
Demjanjuk, 66, a retired automobile worker from Cleveland, Ohio, is the first suspected Nazi war criminal extradited to Israel and the first to be tried here since Adolf Eichmann 25 years ago. He is charged with several counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against Jews. If convicted he faces the death penalty. The trial is expected to last for three months.
At the end of Tuesday’s session, the court thanked Epstein for the restrained and dignified manner in which he related the terrible events at Treblinka. On Wednesday, another Treblinka survivor, Eliahu Rosenberg, will take the stand.