Posted by Tom Teicholz
This week, John Demjanjuk was put on trial in Munich, Germany for being an accessory to the murder of 28,700 Jewish men, women and children at the Sobibor extermination camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, between March and September of 1943.
Due to Demjanjuk’s advance age – he is 89 –the court had decided that it would only meet for two ninety minute sessions a day, and only for three days a week. In addition the schedule was set so that the first week of trial would be followed by a two week break, resuming on December 21.
This week saw the prosecution read the charges against Demjanjuk. The prosecution made clear that Demjanjuk’s participation in the murders at Sobibor was voluntarily and extensive. As a wachmanner, an auxiliary guard, Demjanjuk had volunteered for his Nazi service and was trained at the Trawniki camp, where he was armed – at Sobibor, he was given leave and could have escaped at any time, and that he participated in every phase of the murders – the rounding up of Jews, herding them into the gas chambers – in each phase, he was complicit.
Several co-plaintiffs, individuals whose family members had been murdered at Sobibor during the period in question, Dutch Jews, were allowed to testify. They gave moving testimony of how they were separated from their families and spent the war years in hiding. The testified as to how their deported family members believed they were being taken to the East and how some were convinced they would survive and be reunited one day. Each confirmed that they learned of the deaths of their relative at Sobibor through Red Cross lists.
The defense spent the first week launching a grab bag of motions arguing that the trial should be dismissed for a host of reasons, the illegality of the US deportation, and double jeopardy arising out Demjanjuk’s prior acquittal in Israel. The defense also argued that the Judges could not sentence Demjanjuk who is alleged to have been a mere guard at Sobibor, when the trials of Sobibor officials in the 1960s resulted in acquittals or in sentences of less time than Demjanjuk served in Israeli prison during the course of his trial there. Finally, the defense argued that Demjanjuk was no perpetrator but a victim himself, a soviet prisoner of war who would have been murdered had he had not followed orders and that his actions at the camp were no worse than those of the Jewish Kapos who were put in charge of other Jewish inmates or of the Jewish sonderkommando, the Jews who were in the area of the gas chambers. Some courtroom attendees booed when such comparisons were made and the prosecution and co-plaintiff’s attorneys dismissed such comparisons saying the distinction was simple, “the guards murdered: the jews were murdered.” The court replied that it would respond to the motions in time.
As for Demjanjuk, much time was spent discussing his health. His attorneys claimed he was not fit to stand trial and had leukemia. The doctors who examined him found him to have a low grade bone marrow disease which was not leukemia and was low risk. He was found able to stand trial. Nonetheless, Demjanjuk arrived to court on the first two days by ambulance, and entered the first court session in a wheel chair and thereafter on a stretcher. He wore a blue baseball cap and covered himself in a blue blanket. During most of the trial time he closed his eyes and on occasion turned on his side. When asked questions by the court, he did not reply, his attorney responding that Demjanjuk was exercising his right to remain silent. At one point, during the survivor’s testimony, Demjanjuk crossed himself and mumbled some prayers. On the morning of the third day of trial, Demjanjuk had a slight fever and the court postponed the trial – which as per the court schedule will resume December 21.
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December 2, 2009 | 8:32 pm
Posted by Tom Teicholz
The trial of John Demjanjuk, 89, who is accused of being an accessory to more than 28,000 deaths at the Sobibor extermination camp in Nazi occupied Poland during the time he is alleged to have served there as a guard, began today in Munich, Germany.
I am writing this not from Munich, but from Santa Monica, CA where thanks to Google news, official press releases from the Bavarian Justice Ministry and the links sent by colleagues I will do my best to both distill and comment on the proceedings.
The opening of the trial was delayed for an hour because of the large number of press wishing to attend, more than 247 of whom were accredited to attend. The court room, room 101 of the Munich Regional Court holds only 147 persons — as a result only 60 press members were allowed in the court room. Video of the event shows long lines, police fences and policemen in quasi-riot gear (I only saw three) surveying the crowd waiting to enter. More than 30 mainly Dutch co-plaintiffs who had lost family members in Sobibor filled the first two rows of the public gallery.
Before the trial could begin there was some procedural and housekeeping matters.
The defense raised the issue of Demjanjuk’s health saying that he had numerous ailments including leukemia. However, two hours before trial a court appointed physician examined Demjanjuk and found his vital conditions “stable.” The court has limited court sessions to two ninety minute sessions a day, three days a week, with one week break every three, in order to accommodate Demjanjuk’s advanced age.
Demjanjuk arrived at court in an ambulance. He entered the court in a wheelchair, wearing a blue baseball cap, and covered by a blue blanket, but looking remarkably the same as he did twenty years ago when he was on trial in Israel.
Demjanjuk did not answer any of the judges’ questions concerning his personal information other than to moan or make noises and he continued to do so throughout the hearing, at one point seeming to be having trouble breathing.
A half-hour after the proceedings began, Demjanjuk began to wave his arms in pain. The Court called for a half-hour recess, while Demjanjuk was treated. In the afternoon, Demjanjuk arrived in court on a stretcher rather than in a wheel chair. The court spent some time determining if he was fit to stand trial and concluded he was.
One of the attendees at the trial, Martin Hass who is a relative of survivors and lost many other relatives in the Holocaust, commented to the BBC that although he viewed the trial as an “honorable” example of a democratic system, he found Demjanjuk’s facial gestures and sounds, “theater-like.” and accordingly, “unfortunate.”
Ulrich Busch, Demjanjuk’s defense attorney, argued that the Court could not try Demjanjuk as they were prevented from doing so by a “double standard” under which Germany found many Germans innocent during the Sobibor trials of the 1960s in Germany. “How can he have aided in a crime to which other people were acquitted? Ulrich said. If the German commanders were innocent, the defense argued, how could one even try a guard who a “slave” to them.
The Defense, while not admitting that Demjanjuk was at Sobibor — they said Demjanjuk did not recall serving at Sobibor — nonetheless made the argument that the guards were no different than the Jewish prisoners, such as Thomas Blatt, a California man who survived Sobibor and was attending the trial and was a potential witness — all were forced to obey the Germans or be killed, the defense argued. Demjanjuk was a “victim” of the Nazis, not a perpetrator of crimes, he said.
“He is as much as victim as those people who were imprisoned in the camp but he is being treated as if he was a mass murderer, when in fact he didn’t even have any choice whether he was there or not,” Ulrich reportedly said. According to some accounts, attendees in the court gasped and even booed when hearing these claims.
The Prosecution took issue with these arguments. State Prosector Hans Joachim Lutz said they could not compare the trials held then by recently de-Nazified Judiciary with the judiciary today who were free to hold their own trials and come to their own conclusions.
Cornelius Nestler representing some of the co-plaintiffs said the differences between Demjanjuk and his victims were clear. The guards were armed and were given leave and many opportunities to leave the camp and escape — the Jews had no such option. The guards murdered; and the Jews were murdered, so how could one compare the two?
Judge Alt agreed, dismissing the defense motion.
The trial is scheduled to take place over the next six months, but no one really knows how long it will take or whether Demjanjuk will see the trial to its conclusion. However, according to Time magazine, for many of the survivors and the relatives of those murdered at Sobibor, they were relieved that trial had opened.
We should not take that for granted. In Munich, the city where Hitler held his beerhall putsch, where the Nazi party was founded, and where it was headquartered during the war — In Munich, which saw the treaty of appeasement with Chamberlain and the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics — In Munich, Germany. the trial of John Demjanjuk began today, for crimes committed at the Sobibor extermination camp more than 60 years ago, a trial of a Ukrianian-born Nazi collaborator, a wachmann auxiliary guard, at a camp purposed for the extermination of Jews in Nazi occupied Poland began today, prosecuted, defended, and judged by Germans, part of a generation born since the war. We should not take that for granted.
April 14, 2009 | 5:28 pm
Posted by Tom Teicholz
According the AP, two judges on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals have stayed Demjanjuk’s deportation while they consider whether they even have the jurisdiction to issue a stay.
April 14, 2009 | 4:50 pm
Posted by Tom Teicholz
I just watched video of John Demjanjuk being removed from his house in a wheelchair (not a stretcher as reported elsewhere). It is hard to tell who was there (family members, attorneys).
Demjanjuk is being deported to stand trial in Germany accused of accessory to the murder of 29,000 Jewish men women and children at the Sobibor extermination camp in what was then Nazi occupied Poland. Throughout the many years of his trials (Demjanjuk was first accused of Nazi service in the mid 1970s), he has always issued a complete denial, claiming to have been a Russian prisoner-of-war during the time he was accused of being a Nazi auxilliary guard. But over the years, more and more documents have confirmed his Nazi service—and all have been confirmed as authentic and legitimate (despite defense claims of forgeries).
I covered Demjanjuk’s district court trial in Israel twenty years ago and have followed his case since. The notion that the US Justice Department had continued to prosecute him is something I found admirable—a criminal who won’t admit his crimes, who shows no remorse, can’t be allowed to go gently into that good night, believing that no one cares about the crimes, or that we have forgotten the victims.
Nonetheless, it was hard to watch the video and not feel for his family — Demjanjuk had asked for his priest to hear his confession before he was removed and there is every reason to believe that at 89, he will never see his home again or spend a night with his wife and family again.
Did it have to come to this day? Was there another possible outcome? There is no way to know if Demjanjuk had given his confession to authorities at any point after the war, and actually admitted his Nazi service, what would have transpired — would he perhaps have received a lesser sentence than he may now face (or than perhaps he deserved)? There are some cases to compare him to: his Soviet colleague Danylchenko was tried in the USSR and given a sentence he outlived — as were many during the German Auschwitz trials. But there is no way of knowing—Fedor Fedorenko, a guard at Treblinka, was deported from the US to the Soviet Union, and was executed after his trial there. One thing is certain, Demjanjuk would never have been allowed to become a US citizen and it is that crime, covering up his Nazi service, which led to his being deported today.
Demjanjuk’s denials and obfuscations drew out his prosecutions for these many many years, and he lived long enough for them to pursue him to this point. To their credit authorities didn’t give up. And Demjanjuk’s crimes and the prosecution of them will now follow him to Germany.
March 6, 2009 | 3:28 pm
Posted by Tom Teicholz
I was delighted to introduce novelist and essayist Thane Rosenbaum last night at Loyala Marymount University (LMU )and moderate the Q & A after. Thane was speaking on Artful Testimony: reponsibility and imagination in Holocaust narrative.
Thane made a lot of very thought provoking comments, Basically,—and let me say, that clearly you should go hear Thane, because it is worth hearing from him—but Thane made the argument that although the artists has the license to write about anything and everything, he feels that license should not extend to fictional writing about atrocities, because artists lack the capacity, the tools to express the unimagineable—that atrocities are properly the area of testimony—which may be done artfully by great writers—but not the realm that fiction should delve into.
Thane’s work, novels such as “The Golems of Manhattan,” “Second hand smoke,” and the short story collection “Elijah Visible” have Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren as characters discussing the Holocaust—but his work remains rooted in the aftermath of the Holocaust and its impact on his characters and their conflicts.
He also said that the famous Santyana quote that those who do not learn from the past are sentenced to repeat it is a lie—that human nature is to repeat itself, and that the tragedies in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur show that in spite of what we know we repeat the past…... so—given that the argument for making watered down versions of Holocaust narratives in films or on TV is that they will reach more people - is an argument he would only accept if he beleived that it made a difference in human behavior—and as it does not, he would be happy not have any fictionalized Holocaust movies.
Thane’s points are well taken and well worth considering. However, knowing that there the films have been mande and will continue to be made, for me, as I wrote in a recent column, the distinction I make is by saying that there may be no such thing as a good holocaust movie, only a good movie about holocaust related events.
By the way, I’d like to give a shout-out to my new friend Prof. Holly Levitsky, of LMU’s English Department and who also chairs the minor in Jewish studies who organized the event, and whose students were also impressive.
March 4, 2009 | 3:56 pm
Posted by Tom Teicholz
Tommorrow night (Thursday March 5), novelist, attorney, law professor, and essayist Thane Rosenbaum will be appearing at Loyola Marymount University in their McIntosh Hall at 7pm.
Rosenbaum will be speaking on : “Artful Testimony: Responsibility and Imagination in Holocaust Narrative.” Rosenbaum is the author of the novels, “The Golems of Manhattan,” “Second Hand Smoke,” the short story collection “Elijah Visible,” and the non fiction work “The Myth of Moral Justice.”
I will be introducing Rosenbaum and then will lead the Q & A after his talk.
February 19, 2009 | 3:09 pm
Posted by Tom Teicholz
Controversy has been brewing surrounding Caryl Churchill’s play “Seven Jewish Children: a play for Gaza.” A blog on the New York Times, The lede, has done us all the tremendous favor of actually posting a link to the full text of the play. Read it Here.
Many have asked: Is it Anti-Semitic? That strikes me as the wrong question and the wrong term. What it is is a prose poem — tendentious, misinformed, simplistic, full of misleading assumptions all gathered in an attempt to make a point, which is in itself a judgment of a whole people (Jews) and a whole nation (Israelis) as if that were possible (I could imagine a version of this play called “seven American children” which would be equally tendentious).
I understand Churchill’s desire to put her art in service of what she sees as a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. But perhaps a trip to Israel and Gaza first would have yielded a play that was less fanciful but more actual. And would have succeeded better in achieving her goal or in raising funds for humanitarian assistance to Gaza. (putting aside the whole question of what actually goes to the Gazans and what remains in the bank accounts of the relief organizations, and local leaders — but that’s another story) — Perhaps it would have made no difference and this is what Churchill has to say on the subject.
But read the play, you decide.
January 20, 2009 | 7:37 pm
Posted by Tom Teicholz
For me, that is the tag-line for President Obama’s inauguration speech — signaling the game-changing history- making moment and the journey we are embarking on.
It was a very focused serious speech, befitting the occasion, sending a signal to the world and to our country that change is a coming — and has come.
PS. and I am happy to report that the New York Times seems to agree that “Era of responsibility” is the take-away phrase. Job, please?
PPS did George Bush look a little too happy to be getting into that helicopter?
PPS and as for Dick Cheney in the wheelchair, with all due respect to the former VP, was I imagining it or did he look like Mr. Potter from “It’s a wonderful life”, the meanest man in town, or was giving us a last view of his Dr. Strangelove impersonation?