BY GISELA FRIEDRICHSEN
John Demjanjuk is playing the dying victim at his trial in Munich. In doing so he is insulting the relatives of the Jews murdered in Sobibor. The 89-year-old defendant accused of aiding and abetting mass murder is neither senile nor confused nor terminally ill. He could earn respect by expressing remorse.
A defendant has the right to a fair trial. He can decide, at his own discretion, whether and how he wants to take part in clearing up the charges brought against him. He may remain silent, sit impassively, or actively follow the proceedings. But what he may not and should not do is behave in court like John Demjanjuk, 89.
Highly suggestive images have been broadcast from Room A 101 of Munich’s criminal justice center. Viewers around the world have seen what appears to be a dying old man, strapped into a bulky stretcher and wrapped in blankets — despite the overheated courtroom — as if he had just been snatched from his doctors to be placed before the judges.
Occasionally he also pulls a white wool throw over himself like a shroud. Demjanjuk is playing the dead man. He is staging a theatrical performance in a bid to portray the justice system as one that doesn’t shy away from prosecuting aged old men, the smallest cogs in the Nazi’s machinery of death, after decades of treating key perpetrators of the Holocaust with kid gloves.
Such a view of the situation is not entirely inaccurate. However, the latest generation of legal experts has long since discarded the doctrine that the guilty parties can only be found among high-ranking members of Hitler’s regime. Today’s prosecutors no longer believe that the little people, those who actively took part in the industrial-scale killing, were merely being exploited.
Demjanjuk in a February 2005 file photo. Ulrich Busch, one of his attorneys,
said the trial was prejudiced against Demjanjuk. Commanders in Sobibor had been acquitted in previous trials while Demjanjuk was being put on trial even though he had been forced on pain of death to carry out the work, said Busch.
In the courtroom, Demjanjuk sat with his head on a headrest. Then he reached up with a shaky hand and pulled his baseball cap over his closed eyes. Was he perhaps blinded by the ceiling lights? No. He appeared to be avoiding the gazes of those who have accused him of forcing their families into the gas chambers of the Sobibor extermination camp. These survivors include people who were children at the time, like Mary Richheimer-Leijden van Amstel, 70, who was one-and-a-half years old when she “went underground,” as she calls it.
Going underground is the wrong expression. The children were hidden with people who risked their lives so that at least the smallest would survive. Many of these children were adults when they found out, to their horror, why their parents no longer looked after them. During the proceedings against the former camp guard at Sobibor, they told the judges which of their relatives were gassed and murdered. After all, the court had to examine whether they can be accepted as a co-plaintiffs — a pure formality.
But even this formality is traumatic for the surviving family members. Jaap Simons, born in 1935, was five-and-a-half when “someone picked him up.” He doesn’t know any names. “I was at four different addresses,” he said. Whose homes are we talking about? He named cities. The presiding judge asked, “Do you have other relatives who also died in Sobibor?” “I don’t know.” Simons has also never read the lists, published later on, that contain the names of those who were deported in sealed railway cars, traveling from the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork to occupied Poland. He cannot bring himself to do it. He cannot produce any documents. He has nothing, absolutely nothing.
Rudolf Salomon Cortissos was born in 1939. His mother, an aunt and an uncle were killed in Sobibor. Other relatives were sent to Auschwitz. He was also taken to various “addresses.” His father managed to escape. After his death in 1959, the son found a letter among his father’s possessions. It had been written by his mother and thrown from the train headed for Sobibor in the hope that someone would find it and make sure that it was delivered.
Presiding judge Ralph Alt asked Cortissos in a friendly tone if he “could examine” the letter. Cortissos handed it over — and burst into tears out of fear that the only memento that he has from his mother would now be “confiscated”. Alt was taken aback. “No, no, for heaven’s sake!”, he stammered, adding that the court merely wanted to glance at the letter. Alt was so flustered that he dictated to the court stenographer, “The council for the defense has produced a letter …”
Cortissos is not being defended, nor is he the defendant. He is merely being represented by Cornelius Nestler, a law professor from Cologne, Germany. These deeply hurt people require legal assistance as they appear before the court. Their testimony at the trial is the last thing that they can still do for their family members, who were taken away before they had a chance to get to know them.
Saved by a German Shepherd Dog
Some prepared their statements, like David van Huiden, who escaped from a raid carried out by the SS because he took the family’s German Shepherd dog for a walk. “A German dog of course deserves some fresh air,” he said with a bitter laugh. Twelve days later, on his birthday, his parents and sister were murdered in Sobibor.
“I really thought they were going to a labor camp and would return after the war. I lost everything. Everything that was dear to me was gone.”
“Why were you so convinced?”, asked the associate judge. “The Germans didn’t say: You’re going to Sobibor to be gassed,” the witness responded. “What sense did it make for people to take trams to the collection point and be brought by passenger train to Sobibor if they weren’t supposed to return? Do I have to take a train to hell? They said people should take warm clothing. What was the point if they were being killed? If people had known that they didn’t need a return ticket, they would have been better off staying at home. That was the really big lie!”
Van Huiden thanked to court for listening to him, and the presiding judge dictated to the court stenographer, once again without any ill intentions: “The council for the defense has produced …”
The next witness to take the stand was Martin Haas, a professor at the University of California in San Diego. “Together with my younger sister, who was four years old at the time, I was hidden in a Catholic family. It was winter. A woman wearing a large coat took us down there. There were four of us children at home. It was possible to hide the two little ones, but not the older ones.” “And your father?” — “He was in Auschwitz,” Haas said, “where he had to work. Arbeit macht frei, as they say. He died there. I don’t know how.”
(Editor’s note: “Arbeit macht frei,” literally “Work makes you free,” was an infamous slogan placed over the entrances of Nazi concentration camps.)
Thomas Blatt (L), a survivor of Sobibor who is one of around co-palintiffs at what is
being billed as Germany’s last major Nazi war crimes trial. He was accompanied by his representative Stefan Schünemann on Monday. “Justice takes a long time. I am not seeking revenge for Demjanjuk. He should tell the truth,” said plaintiff Thomas Blatt, whose family was killed at the camp in 1943 and who at 15 was ordered to sort out belongings of Jews sent to be gassed.” Today is important because it is the last big international case that everyone is interested in.”
The hidden children weren’t fetched after the war. “We waited and waited. But no one came. I was sent from one family to the next by the authorities. I didn’t like it anywhere. Then a distant cousin found me. That’s how I survived. In 1964 I went to study at Berkeley.”
Not “Terminally Ill”
On the morning of the third day, Demjanjuk complained that he had a temperature and was feeling hoarse. His journey to court was cancelled and he didn’t have to hear any more witness testimonies. The previous day, proceedings had been prematurely adjourned because he said he had a headache. Paramedics rush to his side at the slightest sign of a problem. The court always recesses without asking questions. They want to avoid any scandal that would allow the defendant to direct the proceedings.
Three doctors confirm that he is fit to stand trial. Since he arrived in Germany, Demjanjuk has been constantly examined and given medical treatment. He’s probably in better health now than at the time of his arrest in May. He neither has dementia, nor is he confused, and he does not suffer from a “terminal illness,” as his lawyer Ulrich Busch often pleads.
Like many people his age, he has limited mobility and is not as physically resilient as he used to be — a fact that the court takes into consideration in every possible way. Staff at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison assert that he can definitely stand on his feet, depending on how well he is feeling. They say that he occasionally ambles through the halls with a walker and, weather permitting, ventures into the yard in a wheelchair when prisoners are allowed outside to exercise. There does not appear to be a medical reason for his dramatic court appearances.
Demjanjuk’s “Forced Deportation”
Right at the beginning of the trial, his attorney flooded the court with petitions to drop and suspend the proceedings, and challenged the impartiality of the court. That may be part of Busch’s job as his client’s legal representative and acceptable to some extent. But it definitely wasn’t part of his job to refer to Demjanjuk’s extradition to Germany as a “forced deportation” — in front of the relatives of the victims. And it wasn’t his job to liken the survivors with those prisoners of war who served the SS as willing henchmen. “The camp guards murdered, the Jews did not,” Professor Nestler retorted.
Demjanjuk has never had much luck with the Germans. First, they almost let him starve to death in a POW camp, then they allegedly had him do the dirtiest jobs in camps like Sobibor. Now they are holding him accountable for his actions. But does that diminish the charges of the prosecution, namely that between the months of April and September, 1943 he was an accessory to the murder of at least 27,900 people? Should he be acquitted, assuming that he is in fact guilty, because other guilty parties have been let off scot-free?
Every Friday in 1943 a train would arrive from the Netherlands. In the camp they had to quickly kill between 1,000 and 3,000 people and dispose of the bodies. Teeth were broken out of the jaws of the victims. Clothing and valuables were sorted and shipped out. There were at most 15 SS men stationed at Sobibor. Without the camp guards, this factory-line system of murder wouldn’t have worked.
The presiding judge read off dates, numbers and names. The list included infants. “Born on April 11, 1943, died on April 23, 1943.” That was the day the newborn arrived in Sobibor. A man born in 1848. A small boy named Jacques, born on May 18, died on July 23.
A Chance to Say Sorry
There was dead silence in the courtroom. Demjanjuk pulled his baseball cap over his face. Up until now, he has denied having anything to do with Sobibor. At the beginning of the trial, the defense stated that since there was no one else to charge, the judges would have to pass judgment on “a camp guard at the lowest level of the hierarchy.”
Was that a confession of sorts?
Busch likes to make sweeping statements. He told the court that his client had been conclusively acquitted in Israel and Poland. This meant that he cannot be tried a second time on the same charges, he said. But there is a catch. In Israel Demjanjuk was tried on charges of being “Ivan the Terrible” — a notoriously cruel guard at the Treblinka death camp — and not as a camp guard at Sobibor. And in Poland prosecutors suspended proceedings under the provision that they could be resumed at any time.
The defendant has nothing to lose. There is a good chance that the prosecution — aiding and abetting the murder of Dutch and German Jews transported to Sobibor on the orders of German authorities– will lead to a conviction, not just in Demjanjuk’s case. So he could say: “Yes, I was in this hell and didn’t want to die. I regret it deeply.”
That would put an end to all the lies and earn him a modicum of respect. It is entirely up to him.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen.
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