Text size

MUNICH - Dutch Jews whose parents and siblings died in the gas chambers of the Sobibor death camp took the stand yesterday, the second day of the war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk, to tell the Munich state court about the loss of their relatives during the Holocaust.

During the same session yesterday, prosecutors accused Demjanjuk of knowingly herding thousands of Jews to their deaths and standing by as victims screamed in fear.

Some have argued that Demjanjuk, 89, should not be prosecuted on charges of being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews because he is elderly and ill and is not accused of being a high-level figure in the Nazi regime.

But it was clear yesterday that the passage of more than 60 years has done little to mitigate the pain felt by the children of those killed in the death camps, most of whom are now in their 70s.

"My mother thought she was traveling to work in the east," Rudolf Salomon Cortissos, 70, shouted in German before breaking into tears on the witness stand.

He waved a letter his mother had sent before she was put on the train to Sobibor.

When Judge Ralph Alt asked to see the letter, Cortissos gently handed it over, saying it was one of his most precious possessions.

In neat handwriting, on a single piece of yellowed paper folded into quarters, Cortissos' mother told her family she was being sent east to work - a lie propagated by the Nazis so people would be less likely to resist.

"I promise you I will be tough and I will definitely survive," she wrote, in what turned out to be her final words to her family. She ended the letter by saying "Hope to see you again soon. Bye-bye. Many kisses."

Another co-plaintiff, David van Huiden, 78, described how his parents saved his life before they were sent to the Nazi death camp in Poland.

"We had a dog, a German shepherd," he told the court. "My parents told me that if there was a raid I should take the dog and act like I was walking it, as if the dog needed some air, until I got to their friends' home."

Walking the dog saved van Huiden, but his parents and older sister perished in Sobibor. He told the court how he spent years underground afterward, hoping he would be reunited with his parents after the war.

"Why did you think they had survived?" he was asked by the court.

"How can you ask such a question?" he asked. "Everyone thought they were going to the east to work. We didn't know about the successful German operation to take my parents from our home in Amsterdam straight to the gas chambers of Sobibor."

Prosecution: Demjanjuk knew

Prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz told the court that Demjanjuk would have known the purpose of the camp soon after arriving, if not before.

The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker who lived in Ohio for a number of years, maintains he was a Soviet soldier captured by the Germans and that he spent most of the rest of the war in prison camps.

But Lutz told the five-judge panel he would prove that Demjanjuk volunteered to serve the Nazis once he had been captured, and that he was a willing participant in the Holocaust. Lutz said Demjanjuk trained to be a guard at the SS camp at Trawniki and was then posted to the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland in March 1943. He added that Demjanjuk could have deserted, but chose to stay in the camp.

"He willingly participated in the killing of the Jews because he wanted them dead for his own racist ideological reasons," Lutz said.

With relatives of the victims looking on, the prosecutor said Demjanjuk had been involved in the "process of extermination" because he had stood by with his gun as Jews were taken off trains, made to undress and pushed into gas chambers.

"Between March 1943 and mid-September 1943, [Demjanjuk], along with others, therefore knowingly ensured that the victims named had no possibility of escape, but were instead put to death in gas chambers or were shot," Lutz said. "He therefore willingly participated in the murders of at least 27,900 people who were brought to Sobibor on the 15 trains from the Netherlands, as well as in other transports."

Demjanjuk was deported from the United States in May to stand trial in Germany. He rejects the charges, saying he has been mistaken for someone else.

In the 1980s, Demjanjuk was extradited by the United States for trial in Israel on charges that he was the notoriously brutal Treblinka guard who'd earned the moniker "Ivan the Terrible." Demjanjuk was convicted in 1988 of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and spent seven years in prison until the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1993. It ruled that another person, not Demjanjuk, was "Ivan the Terrible."