Page last updated at 15:11 GMT, Monday, 30 November 2009

Chaotic scenes as Demjanjuk trial opens

By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Munich

It was a chaotic start to what is likely to be Germany's last big Nazi-era trial.

John Demjanjuk in court break
John Demjanjuk was taken to court in a wheelchair for the first session

Outside Munich regional court, hundreds of people shivered in the cold for hours waiting to go through security checks, then for their identity cards to be painstakingly photocopied and their mobile phones stored away.

Most of them were journalists from around the world.

An 84-year-old Auschwitz survivor who had come from Israel was eventually given priority.

This chaos is a disgrace for Germany, a local reporter complained.

Inside courtroom 101, elderly men and women were already seated.

More than 30 of them are co-plaintiffs - more than in any other Nazi-era war crimes trial.

A few survived the Sobibor death camp. All of them lost relatives or their whole family there.

Martin Haes, from the Netherlands, told me he owed it to the dead to come to Munich.

Double standards?

Seventy minutes after the scheduled start of the trial, John Demjanjuk was brought into court in a wheelchair.

Wearing glasses, a dark blue baseball cap and covered in a blanket, he mumbled at first - possibly at the scrum of cameras facing him.

He then sat quietly, deadly pale, as a Ukrainian interpreter whispered in his ear.

Because Mr Demjanjuk is 89, doctors have decided that the hearings should be limited to two 90-minute sessions a day.

Holocaust survivor Robert Cohen shows death camp tattoo
Sobibor survivors like Robert Cohen attended the trial

But his lawyers insist that he suffers from a variety of ailments, including leukaemia and a bad back, and is unfit for trial.

In the first minutes of the trial, the defence went on to the offensive.

Ulrich Busch, one of Mr Demjanjuk's lawyers, accused judges of double standards.

How can John Demjanjuk who was a Ukrainian prisoner of war, he asked, be found guilty when so many German SS officers who were in greater positions of responsibility have been acquitted over the years?

For instance, Karl Streibel - who commanded the Travniki camp where Mr Demjanjuk is alleged to have trained as a camp guard - was acquitted in 1976 after judges ruled he didn't know what the guards would be used for.

Someone who remembers what the camp guards did is Thomas Blatt, now 82.

He told the BBC that at Sobibor they had blood on their boots after pushing men, women and children into the gas chambers with their bayonets.

Mr Blatt escaped the death camp after taking part in an uprising in 1943. But his mother, father and 10-year-old brother were murdered there.

'Chain of murder'

Thomas Blatt doesn't remember John Demjanjuk. He may have had the lowest rank in the camp, he said, but a guard at Sobibor was a link in the chain of murder.

Mr Demjanjuk's lawyer doesn't seem to dispute that his client was at Sobibor. But he argues that he had no choice.

Facing Thomas Blatt across the court, the lawyer said he and John Demjanjuk were both survivors, both victims. There was a murmur of disbelief among the elderly co-plaintiffs.

There is no doubt though that this trial breaks legal ground - the first to focus on a low-ranking foreigner, rather than senior German Nazis.

It is due to run until May and, if found guilty, John Demjanjuk faces up to 15 years in jail.

Later on Monday he was to return to his cell in Munich prison.

His lawyers say that he likes listening to the radio and has a weekly subscription to Svoboda, a Ukrainian orthodox paper.

Print Sponsor

Demjanjuk cleared to stand trial
03 Jul 09 |  Europe
Demjanjuk 'fit to stay in jail'
13 May 09 |  Europe
Demjanjuk's slow journey to Germany
12 May 09 |  Europe
Profile: John Demjanjuk
30 Nov 09 |  Americas
Demjanjuk loses deportation case
01 May 09 |  Americas

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific