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Updated: November 30, 2009 16:51 IST

‘Last’ Nazi war trial begins

Kate Connolly
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In this file photo dated Nov. 29, 2005, accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk (centre) is helped into a federal court by Ed Nishnic (right) and Ed Nishnic Jr in Cleveland, U.S.A.
In this file photo dated Nov. 29, 2005, accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk (centre) is helped into a federal court by Ed Nishnic (right) and Ed Nishnic Jr in Cleveland, U.S.A.

This is the first ever that Germany is trying a non-German national for war crimes. The prosecutors also believe that it could be the last Nazi trial.

David van Huiden was just 11 when the authorities came to round up his parents, who were bundled on to a train and transported from Westerbork, the Netherlands, to the Nazi death camp at Sobibor in occupied Poland.

In the nick of time they sent him to take the family pet, a German shepherd, for a walk around the block. David, now 78, escaped to the home of a non-Jewish family who provided him with a hiding place where he was given a new identity and survived the Second World War. He later found out that his mother, stepfather and 17-year-old sister all perished in Sobibor.

On Monday, one of the men accused of murdering Van Huiden's family will go on trial in a Munich courtroom in what has been dubbed “the last Nazi trial.”

John Demjanjuk, 89, a retired car worker at a factory in Cleveland, Ohio, is accused of being a guard at Sobibor between March and September 1943 when the gas chamber killings took place. He is charged with being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews.

“My family was unable to defend itself,” said Van Huiden, who will give evidence at the Munich trial. “If Demjanjuk is found guilty then he should be given the toughest sentence.”

According to prosecutors Demjanjuk was one of about 150 Soviet war prisoners recruited as guards who worked at the camp between spring 1942 and October 1943 and were given the specific task of murdering Jews. The charges Demjanjuk faces relate to the number of deaths that took place while he worked there.

The case has attracted huge attention for two reasons: it marks the first time Germany has tried a non-German national for war crimes; secondly, prosecutors believe it will be one of the last Nazi trials.

Since the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War, when several high-ranking Nazis were given life sentences, very few investigations of suspected Nazi criminals have come to court, despite tens of thousands of investigations.

The trial will focus on whether Ukraine-born Demjanjuk, a Red Army soldier, acted of his own free will or was forced into the role of Nazi henchman. Prosecutors will argue that Demjanjuk could have chosen to leave the camp, either by escaping or by requesting to take on other duties.

“He could have fled the camp having had the possibility to do so when off-duty and during deployments outside the camp. He was also in possession of a gun, which would have simplified his possibilities of escape,” the charge sheet reads.

Instead, according to prosecutors, Demjanjuk readily took part in the process of driving Jews into the gas chambers into which engine fumes were pumped. “This resulted in a deadly mix of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide ... which led to unconsciousness. It took the people 20 to 30 minutes to die,” according to the charges.

Demjanjuk denies the charges. His lawyer, Gunther Maull, says he was forced into working at the camp as a prisoner of war.

The farmer's son, who was deported to Germany in May from Cleveland, Ohio, after his family's thwarted attempts to block extradition on the grounds of ill health, is expected to appear in court for just two 90-minute sessions every day.

A total of 35 days have been scheduled for the trial, which is expected to last until May 2010.

He is suffering from the early onset of leukaemia, a trapped nerve in his back, gout, and other ailments and will be brought into court in a wheelchair.

Today's trial is the latest in a string of attempts to prosecute the man who was born Ivan Demjanjuk in what is now Ukraine. After the Second World War he emigrated to the USA and changed his name to John.

In 1986 he was brought before a court in Israel, not for war crimes in Sobibor, but in the concentration camp Treblinka, where it was believed he had been the sadistic camp guard known as “Ivan the Terrible”. Demjanjuk was sentenced to death but released in 1993 after the court ruled it had falsely identified him.

Legal experts have said it could be difficult to prove Demjanjuk's guilt, not least because there is no evidence or witnesses to account for the direct role he is alleged to have played in pushing Jews into the gas chambers.

But prosecutors say it will be enough to prove that Demjanjuk was part of the murderous Sobibor machine, rather than he had killed with his own hands.

Acting as co-plaintiffs, three survivors of Sobibor will give evidence about life at the camp, and will be able to cross-examine Demjanjuk.

More than 30 other co-plaintiffs, most of whom live in the Netherlands and are relatives of people who perished in the camp, will also give evidence. “The co-plaintiffs are looking for truth and justice,” said Cornelius Nester, Cologne professor of criminal law, who has advised most of the group ahead of the trial. “They want that everyone who was responsible for the murders is forced to live up to their responsibilities until the day they die.”

Because of his age and that of other Nazi war crime suspects, Demjanjuk's trial is likely to be one of the last major cases of its kind. However, investigators and Nazi hunters, such as the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, say that there are hundreds of elderly Nazi war crime suspects, mostly from eastern Europe, who after the war sought refuge in America.

More than 100 have been brought before the court by the U.S. Office for Special Investigations (OSI), which has stripped them of their U.S. citizenships.

U.S. officials have sought to persuade their native countries or Germany to receive them and put them on trial. Most countries, such as Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Russia and Ukraine, have refused to do so, fearful of the costs and responsibility involved. Romania has even passed a law forbidding the repatriation of Nazi criminals. Their failure to do so is viewed as a moral stain on Europe by the OSI.

“Europe has persistently neglected its moral and legal duty in the Nazi cases,” said the OSI's director, Eli Rosenbaum.

Germany's decision to prosecute Demjanjuk marks something of a breakthrough. Although he lived in Germany for a short time after the war, he has never had German nationality and he has been stripped of his U.S. citizenship. © Guardian News & Media 2009

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