1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Nazi or victim?

November 30, 2009

Accused of aiding in the murder of nearly 28,000 Jews as a guard at the Sobibor Nazi death camp in Poland, John Demjanjuk and his legal team set out to paint a different picture.

John Demjanjuk entering the courthouse
Demjanjuk was not alert throughout the trial's first dayImage: picture-alliance / dpa

John Demjanjuk, a former auto worker and resident of a town outside of Cleveland, Ohio, was a Soviet Red Army soldier during the Second World War.

In 1942 he was captured by the Germans and brought to the Trawniki camp for training and later, say Bavarian state prosecutors, to Sobibor to work as a guard.

They say he became one of the most enthusiastic participants in that camp's policy of mass murder, helping to kill approximately 27,900 Jews through the course of 1943.

"We hold that the whole set of crimes was only possible because people like the accused today actively supported and carried them out," said Barbara Stockinger, speaking for the Bavarian state attorney's office.

"That is what made the annihilation at the Sobibor camp possible to accomplish."

A victim himself

Demjanjuk's lawyers see things differently. While they admit that he worked as a guard at a number of camps after being captured, they say he doesn't recall ever having worked at Sobibor.

Man looking at plaques at Sobibor death camp memorial
Today's Sobibor site memorializes the thousands killed thereImage: AP

Moreover, they say, as a prisoner of war Demjanjuk was in no position to refuse the orders of his Nazi captors.

"He was a survivor of the holocaust, not a perpetrator," said his defense lawyer Ulrich Busch on Monday.

He argued that it was unfair for Demjanjuk, a prisoner of war who went through his own ordeal at Trawniki, to be standing trial at all.

"This 'Trawniki,' nobody knew what he did," said Busch, using the term by which the foreign guards trained at the Travniki camp were known. "For him to be deported - or even imported - 7,000 kilometers while others are left untouched, what is the reason for this?"

Health concerns

Additionally, Demjanjuk's family claim that he is in very poor health. When entering the courthouse for the trial's morning session, helpers wheeled Demjanjuk in on a wheelchair.

In the afternoon, he came in on a stretcher, and began waving his arms complaining of pain shortly after proceedings began, leading to a half an hour delay while he received an injection.

During that afternoon session, the court heard from three experts on the state of Demjanjuk's health. One of them spoke of his degenerative bone marrow disease, another who said he doubted that Demjanjuk suffered from dementia.

Due to concerns about Demjanjuk's age and constitution, the court had agreed before the trial began to keep sessions to 90 minutes or less, and meet for no more than two sessions a day.

Some observers outside the courtroom, though, saw Demjanjuk's infirm appearance as an act, and openly questioned the gravity of the 89-year-old's medical condition.

"It's a pathetic attempt to appear more crippled than he is. He belongs in Hollywood," said Efraim Zuroff, head of the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem.

Shut out

Television production trucks in front of a courthouse in Munich
Quite a few TV crews turned out for the trialImage: picture-alliance / dpa

For hundreds of people - press from around the world, families of Holocaust survivors, representatives of Jewish and human rights groups - Demjanjuk's entrance to the courtroom was all they got to see.

The Munich courtroom in which the proceedings took place holds just 147 people.

More than 270 members of the media had been accredited for the trial, but just 68 seats had been set aside for them, and the trial began more than an hour late.

Michel Friedman, a former deputy chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who as a popular TV talk show host was once a major media figure in Germany, said he thought that was pathetic.

"We can already see that the Bavarian courts' handling of this is a scandal," said Friedman. "People are lined up to get in and can't. And they've known about this case for weeks now."

The trial is expected to last until next May.

Editor: Michael Lawton

Skip next section Explore more

Explore more