Demjanjuk Is a Victim of Double Standard, Lawyer Says
By Karin Matussek
Nov. 30 (Bloomberg) -- John Demjanjuk’s lawyer told a German court that the 89-year-old is the victim of a double standard that allowed prosecutors to charge him in the country’s most prominent Holocaust-related trial in decades.
The German SS officers who trained or supervised Demjanjuk during World War II were acquitted at trials in the 1960s and 1970s over the same allegations that Demjanjuk is charged with today, his attorney, Ulrich Busch, said on the first day of trial. Demjanjuk, a suspected Nazi death-camp guard, is accused of aiding in the killing of 27,900 people at the Sobibor concentration camp in German-occupied Poland.
“These acquittals stand between the court and my client today,” said Busch, arguing a request for the removal of judges. “How can he have aided in a crime to which other people were acquitted?”
Demjanjuk’s case has been closely watched since a Munich court issued an arrest warrant in March and he was deported from the U.S. two months later. About 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and Germany has been criticized for allowing too many perpetrators to escape punishment.
Busch also argued that the case against his client was arbitrary, because former guards prosecutors rely on as witnesses have lived in Germany for 65 years without facing similar charges. His client, who was a Russian prisoner of war, was in the same situation as Jews who collaborated with the Nazis to save their lives, he said.
Blanket, Baseball Cap
Prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz rejected the allegations, saying his office opened a probe against a witness who was a former guard. The judges today weren’t handling the cases in the 1960s and 1970s that led to the acquittals cited by the defense, Lutz said.
Demjanjuk was brought in the courtroom in a wheelchair, covered by a blanket and wearing a baseball cap. Three medical experts told the court that he was able to stand trial if hearings are limited to two sessions of no more than 90 minutes.
About 35 siblings, children or spouses of people killed in Sobibor have joined the proceedings as private co-plaintiffs. The status allows their lawyers to question witnesses or appeal rulings.
Marco de Groot, 70, one of the co-plaintiffs, said in an interview before the trial that his parents were deported to Sobibor from the Netherlands and murdered. He survived because his father arranged for the then 5-year-old boy to be hidden with friends.
“To be here is the only thing I can do for my parents,” said de Groot, who is from Edam, The Netherlands. “I didn’t even think about whether I should do it. I simply had no choice.”
There is no reason to assume that judges would be biased because of past failures of German justice, said Cornelius Nestler, a lawyer for some of the co-plaintiffs.
“If the accused compares himself with Jews in the camp, we should emphasize some simple facts,” said Nestler. “The guards could leave the camp in their free time and had adequate food. The Jews didn’t. The guards drank and took the inmates’ belongings.”
Demjanjuk was fighting in the Red Army when he was captured by the Germans in 1942, according to the indictment. He was trained as a guard at the Trawniki camp in occupied Poland and served at Sobibor from March to September 1943, prosecutors claim. During that period, 27,900 Jews, mostly deported from the Netherlands, were killed in the camp, prosecutors claim.
Lawyers said the case may demonstrate the justice system’s limits in helping the nation come to terms with its troubled past.
“People are looking for the historic dimensions that transcend the narrow legal issues of the case,” Thomas Henne, a German legal historian currently teaching at Tokyo University, said in an interview. “The question is whether a criminal court is the right place to find historic answers. It’s difficult enough to judicially determine an individual’s guilt six decades after the fact.”
While prosecution of Nazis in German courts started only years after the war, some prominent cases helped break the country’s “cartel of silence,” Henne said, including the Auschwitz trials during the 1960s in Frankfurt where hundreds of concentration camp survivors testified. Still, some probes led to unconvincing acquittals or allowed Nazis to all too easily claim medical reasons to avoid trials, he said.
“With Demjanjuk, the current generation of prosecutors and judges aims to show they won’t repeat these mistakes,” Henne said. “The swift handling of the case is a sort of manifest demonstration saying: ‘Yes, we’re doing better now.’”
Demjanjuk, a Ukraine native and retired autoworker, lived near Cleveland until he was stripped of his U.S. citizenship and extradited to Israel in 1986. He was tried there on charges he was “Ivan the Terrible,” the guard who tortured Jews while herding them into the Treblinka concentration camp gas chambers.
His death sentence and conviction in the case were overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court in 1993, saying there was reasonable doubt that he served at Treblinka. Demjanjuk returned to the U.S., regaining his citizenship. In 2002, a court again revoked it over his alleged role at Sobibor.
Germany’s central Nazi crime investigation unit started to look into Demjanjuk in 2008 after stumbling over his U.S. citizenship case on the Internet. After an eight-month investigation, they referred the matter to Munich prosecutors.
His lawyer, Busch, says prosecutors rely on an identity card and a staff list to prove he served at Sobibor and wrongfully infer he must have aided in the murders because he was there. Busch said document experts found that the ID card was forged.
“It is all a farce and cannot withstand the test of litigation,” Demjanjuk’s son said in a statement.
To contact the reporter on this story: Karin Matussek in Munich via firstname.lastname@example.org;