MUNICH (JTA) — The long-awaited Nazi war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk opened here with his attorney claiming his client is a scapegoat for German guilt over the Holocaust.
Demjanjuk, 89, appeared nearly expressionless as he was wheeled into the courtroom Monday for his trial on charges that he was an accessory to the murder of 29,700 Jews at the Sobibor death camp in Poland in 1943. The Ukraine native was deported from the United States last May to serve trial in Germany.
It is the second war crimes trial he is facing. The first one, on other charges, ended in an overturned death sentence in Israel in 1993.
The current trial could last at least through May.
Wrapped in a blue hospital blanket, Demjanjuk wore a baseball-type cap in court that cast a shadow over his eyes. His head was tilted back, and occasionally he opened his mouth as if to speak or yawn. A few times he moved a hand. But mostly he was still.
His lead attorney, Ulrich Busch, told JTA that Germany “wants to be acquitted through this trial by finding people from other nations guilty.”
Addressing the court later, Busch insisted it was unfair to try a man for allegedly following orders when those giving the orders were never charged. He demanded that the judges and prosecution be removed on suspicions of prejudice against his client.
Busch also said that the so-called Trawnikis — many of them Soviet POWs trained by the SS — were just as much victims as Jews who were forced to work for the Nazis in concentration camps, whether as “kapos” (controlling barracks) or as “sonderkommandos,” hauling bodies of gassed Jews to be burned in crematoriums.
The court rejected his request to remove the judges and prosecutors.
Special prosecutor Cornelius Nestler said that “a court that does the right thing now cannot be biased because other courts did not do the right thing before.”
Nestler added that he was disgusted by Busch’s comparison of SS-trained Trawniki guards and Jews.
“The Trawniki guards in Sobibor were well fed. They ate and drank. They enriched themselves” on the belongings of Jews about to be killed, Nestler said. “They had vacations.”
Sobibor was constructed in 1942 as one of three extermination camps set up by the Germans in occupied Poland as part of Operation Reinhardt. By the time the operation came to a halt in November 1943, at least 167,000 Jews had been gassed there with carbon monoxide, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Demjanjuk immigrated to the United States after the war, settling in suburban Cleveland and becoming an autoworker.
In 1988, Israeli courts convicted Demjanjuk and sentenced him to death for murder and savagery 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 the so-called guard named “Ivan the Terrible,” and he was released.
He returned to the United States until he was deported in May to Germany, after U.S. courts determined that he had lied about his Nazi past in order to gain American citizenship. Germany has jurisdiction to try Demjanjuk because 1,900 of his alleged victims were German Jews and he had stayed in a displaced persons camp after the war.
Thomas Blatt, 82, one of the rare escapees from Sobibor and author of the memoir “From the Ashes of Sobibor,” sat among many of the other co-plaintiffs. He was joined by his attorney, Stefan Schuenemann.
“If [Demjanjuk] was in Sobibor the same time I was, he was a murderer,” Blatt, who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., and is slated to testify in January, told JTA. “All the guards were murderers. … It is enough to prove he was there.”
Guards “chased people to the gas chambers,” he said, adding later that “they were beating us and killing us.”
To those who say Demjanjuk is an old man and should be pitied, Blatt noted that his own grandfather “was an old man, and they killed him.”
“Demjanjuk had a family and kids,” Blatt said. “He was one of the lucky ones.”
“The trial is coming late, but not too late,” said journalist Michel Friedman, former vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany/ “Many here have sympathy for the elderly accused. As for me, I am sympathetic with those who couldn’t be here because they were murdered.”
On Tuesday, several Dutch Jews who lost parents and siblings at Sobibor became emotional as they testified.
Rudolf Salomon, 70, of Amsterdam choked back tears as he told the court how he learned of his mother’s death.
“It was 1946 or 1947 when my father said he was going to find a new mother for me,” he said.
Salomon later saw a letter his mother had thrown from the deportation train.
David van Huiden of Amsterdam was 12 when he said goodbye to his parents and sister in July 1943, “sure we would meet again.” They had believed they were going to a work camp, he said.
Van Huiden went into hiding. His family was gassed in Sobibor.
The “work camp” story was a cruel and very convincing lie, he said.
“Would you get on a train if they said you were going to hell?” Van Huiden asked. “I would say, ‘Thanks but no thanks. I am staying home.’ ”
During the proceedings, Demjanjuk lay before the court on a hospital gurney.
Busch and another defense attorney, Guenther Maull, asked several co-plaintiffs how they knew for sure that their relatives had been gassed in Sobibor. Virtually all of them had seen original lists of deportees or received notifications from the German Red Cross.
Nestler, representing several co-plaintiffs, asked to extend the charges against Demjanjuk to include the very moment of deportation from Holland for all those who died in Sobibor while Demjanjuk was there. All but one of the co-plaintiff attorneys joined in the request.
The judges said they would rule later on the request.
Many of the 30 co-plaintiffs against Demjanjuk are Dutch Jews whose parents were murdered in Sobibor.
“Demjanuk was a small thing, but an important thing,” Michael Koch, an attorney for several co-plaintiffs, told JTA on Monday.
Max Degen, 67, of Callantsoog, Holland, is among those whose parents and brother never came back. His adoptive parents, who had hidden him, told Max the truth about his origins when he was 4 years old.
Coming to the courtroom this week, Degen said, “is the only and last thing I can do for [my parents and brother].”