YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Why is Germany putting John Demjanjuk on trial?

The Nazi war crimes case is seen as a chance for Germany to right a moral wrong, before the 89-year-old Demjanjuk and other suspects die.

December 04, 2009|By Kate Connolly

Reporting from Berlin — Martin Haas struggled to hold back tears as he recalled how in 1943 his life was saved thanks only to the actions of a quick-thinking family friend.

"I remember that it was a rainy day," the 73-year-old UC San Diego oncologist said in slow but measured German. "The woman hid me under her cape, and took me away just in time."

The 7-year-old Haas found shelter with a Catholic family in the Dutch countryside as the German Gestapo began rounding up members of his family and other Jews in the Netherlands, he said this week in a Munich, Germany, courtroom.

He lost his mother, sister and brother in Sobibor, a Nazi death camp in Poland. His father died in Auschwitz.

Just yards to the left of where the scientist sat in the witness stand of Room 101 in the regional court in Munich, a figure lay on a sickbed, an elevated metal construction that dominated the room. The accused, 89-year-old retired Cleveland autoworker John Demjanjuk, covered by blankets with his waxy face mostly concealed by a blue baseball cap, went on trial this week.

Demjanjuk is accused of helping kill 27,900 Jews at Sobibor from March through September 1943, when he allegedly worked there as a guard.

What some observers described as an absurd piece of courtroom drama -- which was adjourned Wednesday for three weeks -- constitutes what could be the last major Nazi war crimes trial in Germany.

As Haas and five other witnesses whose relatives were killed in Sobibor testified, it was impossible to know whether Demjanjuk, who remained impassive and shut-eyed throughout, was even listening.

Doctors vouch for his mental and physical health, saying that though he is frail -- he suffers from a bone marrow illness and a heart murmur -- he is fit to stand trial. The defense argues that he is very sick, with less than a year to live.

Detractors have accused Ukraine-born Demjanjuk of putting on an act. They point to video of him getting in and out of a car with relative ease and to witnesses who saw him gardening at his home in Cleveland, before his deportation to Stadelheim Prison in Munich after a 30-year effort to bring him to justice.

"Listen, seeing him there in court he belonged to Hollywood, not Sobibor, so great was the act he put on," said Efraim Zuroff, head of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which lists Demjanjuk as its most-wanted war suspect.

But many observers have questioned whether the trial should be taking place, saying that too much time has passed, there are no witnesses to Demjanjuk's alleged crimes and that he was forced to participate in the Nazi killing machine or else face death himself.

According to the prosecutor's case, Demjanjuk was a Red Army soldier who was taken prisoner by the Germans in May 1942. He was allegedly trained as a guard by the SS and was one of 150 Soviet prisoners sent to Sobibor.

The prosecutor argues that it is enough to prove that Demjanjuk was a guard in Sobibor to determine that he was an accomplice to murder because all camp personnel were involved in the killings.

The defense argues that Demjanjuk had no choice but to obey orders.

"The Germans who gave him orders had a whip in their hands," his lawyer, Ulrich Busch, told the court this week, arguing that Demjanjuk was as much a victim as the prisoners.

The complexity of trying one of the last suspected World War II criminals has been further underlined by the experience of Israel, which in the 1980s convicted Demjanjuk of crimes against humanity for allegedly being the guard known as Ivan the Terrible at the Treblinka death camp. Israel was forced to release him in 1993 after the Supreme Court overturned his death sentence because of reasonable doubt.

Germany might be forced into a similarly embarrassing back-down. None of the current witnesses can make a positive identification of Demjanjuk. Of the two survivors involved, neither remembers seeing him. The main evidence is some paperwork and an SS identity card, which states that he worked in Sobibor.

So why is Germany putting Demjanjuk on trial? The main reason is that the case is being seen as one of the last chances to right a moral wrong, before Demjanjuk and other suspects die.

Apart from the Nuremberg trials that followed the war, few Nazis have been tried in Germany, despite tens of thousands of investigations. Much of the pressure for Germany to host the trial, despite the fact that Demjanjuk is not a German citizen, was brought to bear by the United States.

The U.S. Office for Special Investigations has sought to persuade the native countries of some of the hundreds of elderly Nazi war crime suspects who sought refuge in the United States to put them on trial.

Those nations, most in Eastern Europe, have largely refused on grounds that the costs are high and the responsibility not theirs, but Germany has accepted it as a moral duty of the country that carried out the Holocaust.

Los Angeles Times Articles