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Demjanjuk Misses Reopening of Trial

June 23, 1987|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The trial of John Demjanjuk, the retired Cleveland auto worker accused of being a guard in a World War II Nazi death camp, reconvened Monday after a month's adjournment, but Demjanjuk was injured on the way to court and missed the opening session.

Defense attorneys said that Demjanjuk, 67, slipped and fell in the police van bringing him to court from his prison cell and was slightly injured because his hands were manacled to the side of the van and he could not keep his balance.

Witnesses said the burly Ukrainian-born defendant, who had been alone in the back of the van, was in tears when he arrived at the court house for the morning session. His injuries, to his head and one shoulder, were not serious, and he was present for the afternoon session.

The trial reopened in Israel after recessing for more than a month while prosecution and defense teams traveled to West Germany to take testimony from two former officers of the Waffen SS, or Schutzstaffel, the combat arm of the Nazi's security service.

Demjanjuk, who was extradited to Israel from the United States last year, is accused of being "Ivan the Terrible," the sadistic guard who tortured Jewish prisoners and operated the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp in German-occupied Poland.

He is the second alleged Nazi war criminal to be put on trial in Israel, and he faces the death penalty if convicted. The first was Adolf Eichmann, who was abducted in Argentina in 1960, taken to Israel, tried, convicted and hanged.

Demjanjuk and his lawyers maintain that the former Ford Motor Co. employee is a victim of mistaken identity and that the mistake has been compounded by evidence fabricated by Soviet officials in an attempt to frame him.

Wounds Reopened

Like the Eichmann trial, the four-month-old Demjanjuk trial has opened old wounds and stirred bitter memories in Israel. But unlike the Eichmann trial, Demjanjuk's has focused on the technical difficulties of trying to establish a person's identity from events that happened more than 40 years ago.

Several survivors of Treblinka, in emotional courtroom scenes, have identified Demjanjuk as the man they knew as Ivan the Terrible, the Ukrainian guard who savagely beat prisoners and herded literally tens of thousands of Jews into the camp's gas chambers in 1942 and 1943.

The defense has questioned the reliability of the memories of these witnesses after so much time, and the case has come to focus now on the authenticity of an identity card from the Trawniki camp where the prosecution says Demjanjuk and other Soviet prisoners of war were trained by the Germans to be prison guards.

Chief defense attorney Mark O'Conner contends that the identity card from the Trawniki camp is a forgery fabricated by the Soviets to discredit Ukrainians like Demjanjuk who emigrated to the United States after the war.

But court sources said this contention could be damaged by the testimony of Helmut Leonhardt, a former SS officer at Trawniki and one of the witnesses interviewed in West Germany.

Several experts called by the prosecution have said they believe the card to be genuine, but they have admitted, under cross examination, that they had never seen such a document before.

Leonhardt, according to the court sources, said that the identity card in question was similar to cards that were issued to Russian collaborators at the camp.

The other witness, former Treblinka nurse Otto Horn, was unable to identify Demjanjuk positively as Ivan the Terrible from the photographs he was shown, the sources said.

The testimony of the two German witnesses has not been read into the trial record and, due to legal technicalities, it may be several weeks before it is introduced, the sources added.

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