Accused Nazi helper John Demjanjuk: murderer or victim? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 11.05.2011
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Accused Nazi helper John Demjanjuk: murderer or victim?

Germany awaits a verdict in the trial against John Demjanjuk, accused of being an accomplice in the murder of thousands. The trial against him - one of the last major Nazi trials - was fraught with emotion and spectacle.

John Demjanjuk wearing dark sunglasses

Demjanjuk refused to actively participate in the trial

An empty adjustable hospital bed with a white blanket and a yellow pillow stood in front of the judge's bench in the Munich courtroom. Just before the hearing began, wardens and medics brought the elderly accused into the room in a wheelchair. He was lifted onto the bed, shifted a bit and then covered up.

It was an unusual and bizarre scene, but one typical of this trial. The 91-year-old John Demjanjuk wore a baseball cap and dark sunglasses. He then lay motionless for hours in his bed, not saying a word, as the court proceedings continued around him.

During the breaks, he suddenly seemed much less frail. He gestured, smiled and joked with his interpreter or the judicial officials. During some 90 court sessions, Demjanjuk made no effort to contribute to the proceedings, either to the case for or against him.

Demjanjuk being wheeled into the courtroom in a wheelchair

Demjanjuk had argued he was too sick to stand trial

The prosecution alleged that Demjanjuk worked for the SS, the elite corps of the Nazi Party, in 1943 as a security guard at the Sobibor death camp in what is today southeastern Poland. He stood accused of aiding and abetting in the murder of 27,900 Jews at the camp, of being a mass murder stooge who made sure the machinery of destruction was running smoothly.

In those days, the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was just 23 years old and went by his given name, Ivan. As a child he had lived through the great famine brought about in his homeland by Stalin's forced collectivization. When Hitler's Germany and the Soviet Union went to war, Demjanjuk was sent to the front to fight.

He was captured as a prisoner of war, a death sentence for many. Millions of Soviet soldiers died of exhaustion, cold and malnutrition as German prisoners.

The prosecution said Demjanjuk weighed the odds stacked against him and then chose to cooperate with the Nazis. He was a so-called Trawniki, or local non-German volunteer, according to the prosecution, who was trained and quickly reassigned to work at the Sobibor camp.

Mistaken identity

After World War II, Demjanjuk immigrated to the US. There Ivan Demjanjuk became John Demjanjuk, a Ford autoworker in Cleveland, Ohio, and a husband, father and churchgoer.

A quarter of a century later, however, his life took another dramatic turn. Initial investigations began against him and US authorities accused Demjanjuk of being "Ivan the Terrible." He was believed to have worked as a machinist in the gas chambers at Treblinka, a death camp north of Warsaw.

Demjanjuk lost his US passport and was extradited to Israel, where survivors said they recognized him as having taken part in the killings. He was sentenced to death. Five years later, his conviction was overturned when newly discovered documents proved that "Ivan the Terrible" was another man altogether. Demjanjuk returned to the US.

A monument commemorating the 250,000 people who were killed at the Nazi death camp of Sobibor is seen on the former camp grounds

Some 250,000 people were killed at the Sobibor camp

But German investigators continued their search for evidence against Demjanjuk. They now believed he was in fact working as a guard for the SS at Sobibor, where 250,000 people were killed between 1942 and 1943.

After extensive legal wrangling, Demjanjuk was again extradited, this time to Germany, where his new trial began in 2009.

It was an emotional trial that gained worldwide attention from the very beginning. Defense lawyer Ulrich Busch verbally attacked the prosecution and plaintiffs repeatedly, while survivors and the relatives of victims wept in sadness and anger. But Demjanjuk's supporters maintained the whole thing was simply a show trial.

A victim of circumstances?

Throughout the trial, the court attempted to shine a light into the dark corners of history. Historians, military experts and handwriting specialists were questioned, and hundreds of documents were analyzed. But in the end, much remained unclear. What exactly did Demjanjuk do at Sobibor? Could he have gotten out of his work there?

Of the very few aged survivors left, there was no one who could testify to a concrete act committed by Demjanjuk. "If he was at Sobibor, he was a murderer," said Thomas Blatt, who was imprisoned at the camp as a youth. But others wondered whether a man who was forced into the role of henchman by circumstance could be held liable for his actions.

The prosecution argued that anyone who worked at Sobibor was an accomplice to the mass murder that took place there. A Sobibor identification card was their main piece of evidence linking Demjanjuk to the camp, although the defense claimed the card was faked by the KGB.

John Demjanjuk's Sobibor identification card

The prosecution's key evidence was an identification card linking Demjanjuk to Sobibor

Demjanjuk's lawyer denied that the accused was ever at Sobibor. And even if he had been there, he said, there was no evidence that his client was involved in the killing of thousands of Jews.

"The real culprit was Germany," Busch told Demjanjuk's accusers. Germany created the system that forced foreign workers to participate in the Holocaust, he said.

The prosecution had pushed for a six-year prison sentence for Demjanjuk, while the defense argued for acquittal.

Family members of Sobibor victims said they were hoping for at least a guilty verdict, even though some of them no longer saw the point of a jail sentence.

A history lesson

Many of those sitting in on the trial traveled to Munich from the Netherlands, where most of the Sobibor victims were from. "This is an important history lesson for us," said Willem Bofink, from the newspaper Trouw, founded in 1943 as an underground paper during the German occupation.

The trial had been exhausting and even annoying, Bofink said, but it was an important example as one of the last great Nazi trials. Those that were at Sobibor said that above all they wanted to bear witness to what happened there, so that such a genocide never happens again.

A verdict is expected this week.

Author: Cornelia Rabitz / hf
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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