MUNICH (AP) — Former Soviet prisoners of war were trained by the Nazis as guards and used regularly in the Germans’ machinery of mass murder, a historian testified Wednesday at the trial of John Demjanjuk.
The Ukrainian-born retired Ohio auto worker, once a Soviet Red Army soldier, is accused of volunteering to serve as a guard for the SS and training at the Nazi’s Trawniki camp following his capture in 1942.
Demjanjuk is charged with 27,900 counts of accessory to murder for his alleged activities as a guard at the Nazi’s Sobibor death camp, also in occupied Poland, in 1943.
The 89-year-old Demjanjuk rejects the charges, saying he never served as a camp guard. The trial in Germany comes after 30 years of legal action against Demjanjuk on three continents.
Dieter Pohl, an expert at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University, described the history of the so-called “Trawniki men,” many of them Soviet POWs recruited by the Nazis, to the Munich state court on Wednesday.
Demjanjuk spent the proceedings lying on a bed and listening to an interpreter. As during previous sessions, he wore a blue baseball cap pulled low over his face.
The guards’ involvement in the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews started with operations to clear Jewish ghettos in Poland in early 1942, Pohl said. They later were used at death camps including Sobibor, where an estimated 100 to 150 “Trawniki men” were stationed at a time, he said.
Witnesses have said the guards were “were active in all parts of the camp, also in the gas chambers,” Pohl said. Among other things, he said witnesses said the guards helped unload incoming trains full of prisoners and walked behind groups the Nazis were sending to the gas chambers.
While there are many accounts of violence by the guards, few of those can be attributed to individuals, the historian said. He conceded that documentation of the guards’ use at Sobibor is “fragmentary.”
There are no direct living witnesses to Demjanjuk’s alleged activities at Sobibor but prosecutors say, if he was a guard there, he was involved in the Nazi machinery of destruction.
Demjanjuk denies ever serving as a guard, saying he spent much of the war in Nazi POW camps before joining the so-called Vlasov Army of anti-communist Soviet POWs, formed to fight alongside the Germans against the Soviets in the final months of World War II.
His defense lawyers question the authenticity of a key piece of evidence — an SS identity card that prosecutors say features a photo of a young Demjanjuk and that says he worked at Sobibor.
The “Trawniki men” declared when they signed up for service that they had no Jewish ancestors, weren’t members of communist organizations, and committed themselves to serve for the duration of the war, Pohl said. They were trained in escorting prisoners.
Still, Pohl noted that Germans tended to view them as “rather unreliable personnel,” with poor education and poor German. As well as Ukrainians, they included former prisoners from the Baltic states and elsewhere, and Soviet citizens of German background.
Demjanjuk has faced decades of legal issues.
He had his U.S. citizenship revoked in 1981 after the Justice Department alleged he hid his past as the notorious Treblinka guard “Ivan the Terrible.” He was extradited to Israel, where he was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1988, only to have the conviction overturned five years later as a case of mistaken identity.
In the latest prosecution, Demjanjuk is accused of serving as a “Wachmann” or guard, the lowest rank of the volunteers who were subordinate to German SS men. It is the first time a conviction has been sought against someone so low-ranking without proof of a specific offense.