First Week of ‘ivan’ Trial Features Attorneys’ Clashes, Dispute over Identity of American Defendant
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First Week of ‘ivan’ Trial Features Attorneys’ Clashes, Dispute over Identity of American Defendant

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The first week in the trial of John Demjanjuk, the only suspected Nazi war criminal ever extradited to Israel, ended Thursday with defense counsel challenging the ability of witnesses to identify the Ukrainian-born former automobile worker from Cleveland, Ohio. He is said to be the Treblinka death camp guard known to inmates as “Ivan the Terrible” because of his brutality.

The trial opened Monday before a three-judge panel of the Jerusalem District Court convened in a converted cinema. Much of the week was devoted to testimony by Yitzhak Arad, a historian of the Holocaust and chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. He presented a detailed picture of day-to-day life at Treblinka, where nearly 900,000 Jews perished.

In contrast to the first three days of the trial, Thursday’s session was electric with tension, marked by frequent sharp exchanges between the prosecution and defense that drew exclamations from the spectators.

The court intervened several times to reprimand one of the parties for unseemly behavior. At one point, it ordered the microphone removed from the table of Yoram Sheftel, an Israeli lawyer who is assisting Demjanjuk’s American attorney, Mark O’Connor. Sheftel frequently interrupted the proceedings.


The cross examination of Arad Thursday focused on whether inmates could identify those who carried out the extermination process. The Treblinka Ivan, and another guard, Nikolai, ran the gas chambers. O’Connor questioned how an inmate who was “traumatized beyond belief in the history of man” could “look in the eye” and “stand and observe” the person who was beating him or operating the gas chambers.

Arad responded that he “had no doubt” that inmates used “in this terrible work for weeks or even months had the opportunity to look at the faces of the Germans and Ukrainians who enslaved them.” He said inmates in the lower camp at Treblinka were aware of the events and people active in the upper camp where the gassings took place because they moved from one camp to another.

The court banned Arad from making a statement at the close of his testimony. He told the Army Radio later that he had intended to say that not all Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis and that many joined anti-Nazi resistance forces and saved Jews.

Throughout the proceedings, Demjanjuk, 66, sat in the prisoners dock, stone-faced, as he listened to the testimony translated into Ukrainian.

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