History comes alive at Demjanjuk trial

December 3, 2009

Entering the Munich court this week to cover the trial of John Demjanjuk, 89, accused of helping to force 27,900 Jews into gas chambers at an extermination camp in 1943, was like stepping into a history book.

Inevitably, the spotlight was on Demjanjuk himself.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s most wanted Nazi war suspect lay under a white blanket on a mobile bed in the middle of the courtroom. Was this old, expressionless and clearly weak man really the “face of evil”?

Efraim Zuroff, head of the Wiensenthal Center’s Jerusalem office echoed the views of many observers when he told Reuters: “Demjanjuk put on a great act. He should have gone to Hollywood, not Sobibor.”

Even to those who believed he was making the most of his frail condition, it was a pitiful sight.

Perhaps most striking, however, was the presence of other Holocaust victims and witnesses of Nazi atrocities.

It was hard not to be moved as Thomas Blatt, a partially deaf 82-year-old survivor of Sobibor, struggled to follow the proceedings and told Reuters he still had nightmares about his months at the death camp, in what is today Poland.

Or when Rudolf Solomon, 70, told the court in a breaking voice about a farewell letter his mother had thrown out of the train on the way to Sobibor, hoping somehow it would reach her family. After his emotional testimony, medics had to support him as he left the court.

Then there was Robert Cohen, 83, who rolled up his shirt sleeve to show the number branded on his arm at Auschwitz. His parents and brother were killed by Nazis.

These individuals, who belong to a generation that is dying out, said the trial was symbolic. Their main interest was in hearing the truth and being able to tell the world what they witnessed.

It can also be argued that this trial, probably Germany’s last big Nazi-era war crimes case, is crucial for younger generations.

It can help set the record straight on a defining moment in modern European history and even lead to a greater understanding of today’s policies. It helps explain why diplomatic relations between some European neighbours are still highly charged. And why European cooperation after World War Two — which eventually led to the European Union —  was so important. Politicians were intent on avoiding another war.

No one in Munich disputed that Germans were responsible for the Holocaust but survivor Blatt pointed out that the trial of Demjanjuk, who was born in Ukraine, served as a reminder that Germans were not the only people to kill Jews.

There is no easy answe

r to the question of how to deal with a Soviet prisoner of war such as Demjanjuk, who probably saved his own life by agreeing to be a camp guard with the SS. Especially 66 years later, when he himself is near the end of his life.

Blatt said he felt no hatred towards Demjanjuk. “There is no price he could pay that would come close to his guilt,” he said. “I just want to hear the truth.”

Demjanjuk’s lawyer, Ulrich Busch, argued his client was a small cog in a huge machine and many people in more senior positions than Demjanjuk had escaped justice.

Does the fact that Germany has made mistakes in the past in prosecuting war crimes suspects mean that Demjanjuk should not face trial?

(Pictures: from top John Demjanjuk at the Munich court ready for his trial (by Michael Dalder, Reuters); John Demjanjuk enters courtroom reclining on a bed (pool picture); Auschwitz survivor Robert Cohen at Demjanjuk’s trial (by Michael Dalder, Reuters).


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John Demjanjuk was not a Nazi or a German. He was a prisoner of war. Many former German SS officers and guards will not face trials because of the amnesty enacted several years ago. Demjanjuk was already tried and sentenced to death in Israel, but his conviction was later overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court, citing reasonable doubt. He is now being tried by the country that planned and executed the Holocaust.

Posted by Nadine Pikas | Report as abusive

If Israel let him go, Germany should have nothing to say about it. Who are they kidding, anyway? Germany shoulde be on trial. They started 2 world wars. Until they make restitution to the entire planet for the destruction of those wars, they should just shut up.

Posted by JEH | Report as abusive

The question should be why Demjanjuk was permitted to enjoy forty comfortable years with his family in America while tens of thousands of his victims were murdered after months of enduring a nightmarish incarceration in Sobibor. His excuse that he had only volunteered to save his life demonstrates that he is not only a monstrous ogre but also a coward.

Posted by Ralph Szwarc | Report as abusive

Mr. Efraim Zuroff says in this article: “Demjanjuk is putting on a great act and should be in Hollywood.”On Wednesday, December 2 the doctors said thatDemjanjuk is running a fever and is too ill togo to court and it was canceled for a few weeks.The trial judge agrees with this.WOW!! What an actor! I bet Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks,Patrick Stewart, Jack Nicholson CAN’T EVEN act to doa fever to fool “trained medical doctors”.???????Come on Mr. Zuroff are you blind and ignorant(which in your case I think it is)? It is quite obvious that John Demjanjuk is too ill. If he is ingood health, why is the trial limited for him in two90 minutes sessions a day?In the USA no trial judge is going to do a trial &has to limit it to 90 minutes a day.Suppose he has a heart attack and dies.Are you STILL going to say, Demjanjuk is putting onan act?

Posted by Sharon Booker | Report as abusive

The truth is that Germans are not the only ones that killed the Jews. Russians killed just as many of Jewish people as Germans did. The bottom line is its time for all people of every religion to understand that we all the same and there is one god that we all pray to. We may call him different names, but we all worship him and we all going to answer to him for those entire things that we done here on earth. The religious wars are fought not for god but for a greedy politician that use the religion as they weapon of control. If we can eliminate this we can eliminate the hate towards your fellow human.

Posted by sharethelove | Report as abusive

The first Nazi prison guard to be found guilty of genocide is a Ukrainian prisoner of war? This will not be perceived as justice, if German Courts of Law were not able to convict clear cases of Nazi collaboration, how can this case be seen as legitimate?Are we looking for the truth, justice or vengeance?

Posted by Finnian | Report as abusive

John Demjanjuk represents the worst level of inhumanity. Innocent victims were killed- every second of every minute of every day. He took part in those atrocities. He is a coward, a monstrous man, and deserves to be prosecuted to the fullest extent. That man lived only a few miles from my home in Ma. and I am outraged that he lived while my relatives and millions others suffered a hellish existence.

Posted by Lori | Report as abusive

PLEASE. Let it be. What happened was horrible. Two wrongs never make a right. Let it be! Please.

Posted by KRB | Report as abusive