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Demjanjuk's Germany trial echoes recent past

John Demjanjuk in Jerusalem, 1992
Demjanjuk's first trial ended in a death sentence which was overturned

As the trial of John Demjanjuk resumes, the BBC's Raffi Berg recalls attending his first trial in Jerusalem more than 20 years ago, and the debate it evoked.

John Demjanjuk's appearance on war crimes charges in a Munich court has echoes of his sensational trial in Jerusalem some two decades ago.

Then, like now, the retired Ohio car worker faced accusations of murder on an unimaginable scale, of being a willing killer at a Nazi death camp and of covering up his past.

Unlike now, though, Mr Demjanjuk - an apparently helpless, ailing near-nonagenarian, who spends much of the proceedings flat on his back, with his eyes closed and mouth agape as if gasping for air - was an altogether different figure, but no less divisive or compelling.

The 17-month televised trial in Jerusalem was filled with moments of high drama and sometimes flamboyant performance - from the defendant extending his arm to shake the hand of a camp survivor, sending the man recoiling in horror and causing his wife to faint; to Mr Demjanjuk blowing kisses to the crowd and delivering a "Hello Cleveland" to the cameras.

It made uncomfortable viewing for many convinced this affable man was in actual fact a notorious sadistic guard from Treblinka extermination camp, whose savagery had earned him the moniker Ivan the Terrible.

Genial and relaxed

At the time, I was a teenager, backpacking in Israel. With a keen interest in the Holocaust, I was eager to see the proceedings first-hand, to be a witness to history.

After all, even some 22 years ago, there was a feeling this trial - the country's first Nazi war crimes trial since that of Adolf Eichmann in 1962 - would also be its last.

The day I attended, in August 1987, the trial was already about half-way through, but still the focus of intense public interest.

DEMJANJUK CASE TIMELINE
World War II-era military service ID card for John Demjanjuk, which his lawyers say is a fake
1952: Gains entry into the US, claiming he spent most of war as German POW
1977: First charged with war crimes, accused of being "Ivan the Terrible"
1981: Stripped of US citizenship
1986: Extradited to Israel
1988: Sentenced to death by Jerusalem court
1993: Israeli Supreme Court overturns conviction, ruling that he is not Ivan the Terrible
2002: Loses US citizenship after a judge said there was proof he worked at Nazi camps
2005: A judge rules in favour of deportation to his native Ukraine
2009: Germany issues arrest warrant; deported by US and charged

Crowds would assemble daily outside the venue - a convention centre, ordinarily used for cultural shows. Ironically, the same facility that had hosted the Eurovision Song Contest was now the setting for a much more macabre event.

I joined a long queue of people, passing through security checks and an airport-style metal detector before being directed into an auditorium, which had been specially converted into a courtroom for the occasion.

The room was packed, but from the moment I entered, my eyes were drawn to the large-framed man seated between two Israeli policemen. John Demjanjuk was instantly recognisable, with his round face, big glasses and bald head.

In a scene reminiscent of the Eichmann trial (bar Eichmann's bullet-proof glass "cage"), Mr Demjanjuk - seemingly healthy and alert - sat with headphones on, appearing remarkably relaxed for someone on trial for his life. He occasionally glanced towards the public with a disarmingly genial expression on his face.

Looking back at him, it was hard to imagine this avuncular-looking man could, some 45 or so years earlier, have tortured, beaten and murdered droves of innocent men, women and children in the most unspeakable way.

The public gallery - rows of seats in front of the area confined to the hearing - was packed. Most of the observers were elderly, some were Holocaust survivors. The atmosphere was highly charged, but the room was silent, as the proceedings unfolded almost like a piece of theatre.

On the courtroom floor that day stood an exhibit - an enlarged wartime photograph purportedly of Mr Demjanjuk, and identified by some witnesses as also that of Ivan Marchenko, or the Terrible. Mr Demjanjuk watched attentively as an expert in facial features was cross-examined in detail about the dimensions of the face in the picture.

The discourse was too abstruse for the average layman in the audience, but this barely mattered. All attention was focused on John Demjanjuk, who was being scrutinised for the smallest reaction, a change of expression which might betray his thoughts.

The question of identification and reliability of eyewitnesses more than four decades on was crucial to the case and would ultimately decide Mr Demjanjuk's fate.

'No Eichmann'

Back then, the trial in Jerusalem generated the same kind of debate as that surrounding Mr Demjanjuk's trial in Germany today.

As I discovered, even in Israel, founded in the ashes of the Holocaust, some felt justice could not be served by putting Mr Demjanjuk on trial; that he could not get a fair hearing in a state whose people had been the Nazis' principal victims; that Israel risked condemning an innocent man; even that his trial was a waste of time and money.

After all, Mr Demjanjuk was no Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was the chief architect of the Holocaust, while the man who the prosecution said provided Mr Demjanjuk's true identity - Ivan Marchenko - was a cog, a low-level thuggish Ukrainian guard.

Others, however, felt it was vital for justice not only to be done, but to be seen to be done, especially in the case of one accused of complicity in the deaths of almost 900,000 Jews, and that it would serve as an important lesson for future generations.

In the end, Mr Demjanjuk was convicted then cleared on appeal of being Ivan the Terrible. Justice was done and seen to be done in Jerusalem; few people who had witnessed the trial back then could have imagined ever seeing something similar being played out again.



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