December 4, 2009 | 4:14 pm
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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