December 2, 2009
Demjanjuk trial opens in Munich
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.