JERUSALEM — Testifying for the first time in his five-month-old war crimes trial, retired Cleveland auto worker John Demjanjuk pleaded with his judges Monday not to "put the noose around my neck for the deeds of others."
Taking the stand amid extraordinary courtroom security as the first witness in his own defense, the man accused of being the sadistic Nazi death camp guard known as "Ivan the Terrible" said he grieved deeply "for what was done to your people by the Nazis during World War II just because of the fact that you were Jews."
However, he testified, he was never in Treblinka, where he is accused of helping to murder 850,000 men, women and children, or in the Trawniki facility in which the Nazis trained volunteers from among their Soviet prisoners of war to work in the extermination camps.
"I am not the hangman you're after," the 67-year-old defendant said in his native Ukrainian.
During 4 1/2 hours of direct testimony Monday, Demjanjuk depicted himself as a victim of mistaken identity who had been doing physical labor in a prisoner of war camp during the critical months in which five Treblinka survivors have previously testified that he operated the gas chambers there.
Demjanjuk emigrated to the United States in 1952 and became a naturalized citizen. But he was stripped of his citizenship in 1981 for lying on his immigration papers, and he was extradited to Israel early last year to face a possible death penalty for crimes against humanity and against the Jewish people.
Flanked by Guards
Testifying from his position in the dock, with a Ukrainian-Hebrew translator seated on his left and Israeli police guards flanking them both, Demjanjuk answered questions put to him by his American counsel, John Gill, in short sentences, pausing as instructed by Chief Judge Dov Levin for each reply to be translated into Hebrew and English.
Buffalo, N.Y. attorney Mark O'Connor, whom Demjanjuk fired as his chief counsel just last week, sat with hundreds of other spectators in the converted theater being used as a courtroom. Other would-be spectators stood in lines outside the building waiting to be admitted past unusually heavy police lines apparently mounted as extra protection for the occasion.
Demjanjuk testified of a youth so poverty-stricken that he did not have the required two changes of underwear when he was first ordered to report for Soviet military service.
He described the famine induced in the winter of 1932-1933, after Moscow forcibly collectivized Ukrainian agriculture, as "so horrible that it went beyond anything that humanity had known up to that time." His own family, he said, ate birds and rats and even a pet cat. "People were lying dead in their homes, in their yards, on the roads," he said.
Several times during Demjanjuk's testimony about his early life, and during Israeli attorney Yoram Sheftel's preview of the defense case, the three-judge panel hearing the case admonished the defendant and his attorneys to get to the meat of their evidence.
"Collectivization really has nothing to do whatsoever with this case," objected Judge Dalia Dorner.
The judges' actions were in sharp contrast to the situation early in the trial, when they allowed several days of testimony about aspects of the Holocaust that did not relate to Treblinka or to the accusations against Demjanjuk.
Inmate in POW Camp
Demjanjuk testified that he had spent the period from the fall of 1942 until the spring of 1944 as an inmate in a German prisoner of war camp at Chelm, Poland. He said he first worked there as part of a construction gang carrying materials for building the camp. Later, he said, he unloaded trains and dug sod from the surrounding countryside.
He said he was transferred from Chelm only in the spring of 1944, when he was enlisted in "Vlasov's Army," a force of Soviet prisoners who fought on the German side near the end of the war.
In addition to the five Treblinka survivors, the prosecution previously presented as evidence against the former auto worker what it says is an identification card establishing that Demjanjuk had volunteered for a special Nazi unit composed of prisoners and trained as concentration camp guards in Trawniki.
In his 90-minute argument opening the defense phase of the trial, Israeli co-counsel Sheftel promised that "we will shatter and pulverize this document," proving that it is a Soviet forgery.
The card was turned over to the Israeli government by Soviet authorities, who said it had been among documents seized by its troops at the end of the war. The defense claims that the Trawniki card is a forgery intended to discredit as Nazi collaborators Demjanjuk and other anti-Communist Ukrainians now living in the West.
Referring to a prosecution expert who testified that he has never found a war crimes document forged by the Soviets, Sheftel said the defense "will submit a whole book of KGB forged documents."