He is alleged to be the last Nazi mass murderer ever likely to stand trial but John Demjanjuk cut a strange and pathetic figure as he was wheeled into a heavily guarded Munich courtroom on a hospital bed to face charges of complicity in the murder of over 27,900 Jews during the Second World War.
The 89-year-old former car factory worker, alleged to have been a guard at the Nazi-run Sobibor extermination camp in German-occupied Poland, lay slouched on the bed, covered in luminous green hospital blankets as he was pushed into the packed, brightly lit octagonal-shaped courtroom.
Opposite sat 22 people whose relatives died at Sobibor, among them Robert Cohen who survived the war in the Auschwitz death camp after his parents were murdered in Sobibor. A gaunt man in his eighties, he rolled back his sleeve to display the number that was tattooed into his arm on his arrival at the camp. “I'm here because it is my duty towards my parents and my brother and for millions of others who were murdered by the Nazis. If Demjanjuk was at Sobibor,” Mr Cohen added, “then he would have killed 100 people a day — yes 100 a day, just imagine that.”
But Mr Demjanjuk remained impassive. Underneath his hospital bedding he was clad in the same black leather jacket and baseball cap he was wearing when he was extradited from America to Germany earlier this year. He kept his eyes shut during the whole proceedings. His occasionally gaping but silent and toothless mouth gave him the peculiar appearance of a freshly landed fish. The mostly elderly relatives of the 29,579 Jews gassed, shot or clubbed to death in the Sobibor camp in the summer of 1943, while Mr Demjanjuk allegedly worked as a guard at the camp, stared intently at the figure bundled up at the back of the court wearing red and grey trainers that stuck out from the foot of his bed.
Mr Demjanjuk said nothing during the proceedings. But his doctors said that, despite his morose appearance, he was fit to stand trial although he suffered from chronic bone marrow disease, high blood pressure, gout and several other debilitating ailments.
His trial opened in Germany yesterday with a moment of high drama as his defence deployed every legal trick in the book to have the proceedings declared null and void. Ulrich Busch, one of Mr Demjanjuk's two lawyers, provoked hisses and boos in court after arguing that Mr Demjanjuk's appearance in court was part of a show trial which aimed to “rehabilitate” Germany's image. “The accused has been deported from
his home in America and taken on a 7,000-kilometre trip to Germany to face trial, but nobody knows what he is supposed to have done,” he insisted.
But Mr Busch provoked even more boos after he tried to defend the role of “foreign” concentration camp guards. He claimed that they were nothing like the German SS men who were in charge of extermination camps and that they were forced to do menial jobs. “They were just like the Jews who were forced to work in the gas chambers. Either they did their job or were killed themselves,” he claimed.
But his argument was angrily rebuffed by Cornelius Nestle, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs. “The Travniki men were well-fed, they were given drink, they were able to profit from the property they looted from the prisoners and they were allowed to take holidays. None of this was permitted for the Jews,” he said.