BERLIN // The Simon Wiesenthal Centre's chief Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff, has warned against "misplaced sympathy" for John Demjanjuk, the frail 89-year-old former auto worker who will enter a German court in a wheelchair today to face charges of helping to murder 27,900 Jews in the Holocaust.
Mr Demjanjuk, who was born in the Ukraine, and who is accused of hounding Jews into gas chambers in the Sobibor extermination camp in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943, has been diagnosed with a bone marrow disease and his lawyer says he is in constant pain and "mentally absent". But Mr Zuroff said in an interview that Mr Demjanjuk, who fought extradition from the United States to Germany this year arguing he was too ill to be moved, had a track record of playing up his ailments. "There's nothing like a little drama, and Demjanjuk is great in that respect; he'll do whatever it takes."
Asked if he thought the sight of a weak old man might provoke doubts about the trial, Mr Zuroff said: "There's always a risk of what I call misplaced sympathy, and this is a classic case of it. "The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers. It would be outrageous for people to get off the hook and escape trial or punishment because of their age. Every victim of the Nazis deserves that an effort be made to hold the perpetrators accountable."
The trial in the southern city of Munich is being billed as the last major Nazi war crimes prosecution, and more than 200 journalists from around the world are accredited to cover it. At least 30 relatives of victims, many of them living in the Netherlands, from where trains took more than 30,000 Jews to Sobibor in 1943, have been registered as co-plaintiffs, which gives them the right to make statements in court.
"Most of the co-plaintiffs say, 'We owe it to our parents and our siblings that we sit here, that's the last thing we can do for them - see one of the people who participated in murdering them face justice," Cornelius Nestler, a law professor at Cologne University who is advising them, said. "You won't see the face of evil in Demjanjuk. You will see an old man. But the focus of this trial should not only be on the defendant and his age, it should be on what he did."
According to court documents, Mr Demjanjuk fought in the Soviet army, was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1942 and volunteered to become a concentration camp guard for Adolf Hitler's murderous Schutzstaffel (SS) organisation, which staffed the camps. Prosecutors say he was stationed for six months at Sobibor, where he helped other guards herd people off railway carriages, force them to strip naked and push 80 at a time into the four-by-four metre gas chamber.
Engine exhaust fumes were pumped in, causing a lethal mix of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide that killed after 20 to 30 minutes. German prosecutors have stepped up efforts to bring the last surviving perpetrators to justice in recent years. However, they admit that Mr Demjanjuk was only a tiny cog in the Holocaust machinery. Far more senior SS members got off with lenient sentences or were acquitted in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s.
Until recently, justice authorities refrained from even pursuing the lower-ranking foreign henchmen of the SS. This approach has changed radically with the Demjanjuk trial, Mr Nestler said. "The German justice system is finally applying the right standards to dealing with the Holocaust, which is that everyone who participated in an extermination camp has to be held responsible," he said. In the 1960s and 1970s, German courts argued that the top Nazi leadership was principally to blame for the Holocaust and that people carrying out orders were bound by a chain of command and therefore had limited culpability, Mr Nestler said.
German courts have convicted 6,656 Nazi war criminals in 36,000 trials since 1947, but the overwhelming number of sentences amounted to less than one year in jail, according to figures from the Institute for Contemporary German History in Munich. "Overall, Germany's track record on war crimes prosecutions has been patchy, but there has been a new push recently," Andreas Eichmüller, an expert on trials of Nazi criminals at the institute, said.
"That may be because so few perpetrators are still alive, which enables investigators to focus more heavily on individual cases. Also, there's a new generation of prosecutors who have been pursuing this with a lot of energy." Germany has seen several such trials this year. Last month, Heinrich Boere, a former SS assassin accused of killing three Dutch civilians in wartime Holland, went on trial. This month Adolf Storms, 90, was charged with killing 58 Jewish forced labourers in Austria in 1945.
In August, Josef Scheungraber, a 90-year-old former army officer, was convicted of murder for ordering the killing of 10 civilians in a 1944 reprisal action in Italy. He was sentenced to life and plans to appeal the verdict. "We're definitely much happier with the level of prosecutions; there's a positive change and we've had some very significant practical results," Mr Zuroff said. Prosecutors believe that proving Mr Demjanjuk was in Sobibor will be enough to secure a conviction. They will produce his SS identity card and other documents as evidence, and will call 23 witnesses, including two survivors of Sobibor, Thomas Blatt and Jules Schelvis, in the trial, which is expected to last until May.
Mr Demjanjuk admits he was at other camps but has denied being at Sobibor, which prosecutors say was run by 20 to 30 SS members and 100 to 150 former Soviet prisoners of war. His lawyers are expected to argue that Mr Demjanjuk volunteered to be a guard to save his own life. Two thirds of Soviet prisoners of war - around 3.2 million of five million - died in German captivity. At least 250,000 Jews were killed in Sobibor, in south-eastern Poland.
Mr Demjanjuk's attorney, Günther Maull, said convicting him solely on the basis of his presence at Sobibor and without proving that he committed specific crimes was legally unacceptable. "In my view that would in no way suffice to secure a conviction," Mr Maull said. His past has hounded Mr Demjanjuk for decades. He was extradited from the United States to Israel in 1986 where he was charged with being "Ivan the Terrible", a notoriously evil guard at the Treblinka death camp.
He was sentenced to death in 1988, but his conviction was overturned when new evidence showed another man was probably "Ivan". Mr Demjanjuk, who speaks little English even though he lived in the United States for decades, will have a Ukrainian interpreter. The trial days will be limited to two 90-minute sessions, but Mr Maull said his client will probably not be able to follow the proceedings. "He's mentally absent; it could be through the pain or just because of his age. He will be in a wheelchair; he can't walk anymore. He's in constant pain; if he's been sitting for a while he has to lie down to recover," Mr Maull said.
If found guilty, Mr Demjanjuk could spend the rest of his life behind bars. For the relatives of the victims, it is not just about justice but about paying homage to the families they lost. Mary Richheimer Leijden van Amstel, 70, survived in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands because she was hidden by friends. Her parents, grandparents and cousins all died in Sobibor. "Going to Munich is the only thing I can still do for them," she told the German news magazine Der Spiegel last week.