MUNICH — John Demjanjuk sat in a wheelchair wrapped in a light blue blanket, his eyes closed and his face pale as his trial opened Monday on charges he helped kill 27,900 Jews as a Nazi death camp guard.
Lawyers for the retired Ohio autoworker portrayed him as a victim – of the Nazis and misguided German justice. But three German doctors testified the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was fit to stand trial.
Wearing a blue baseball cap, Demjanjuk, 89, was wheeled in to the packed Munich state court and did not answer when presiding judge Ralph Alt asked if he could answer basic questions about himself. His left hand twitched occasionally and his mouth was open slightly as though he was in pain.
A German doctor who examined Demjanjuk two hours before the trial began said that despite suffering from a bone marrow disease and other ailments he was able to face trial.
"He lies there, keeps his eyes closed, but understands everything," said Dr. Albrecht Stein.
Demjanjuk's family disputed that.
"Given his now confirmed grave medical condition and his resulting inability to fully defend himself, it is farcical for anyone to say he is fit for trial and malpractice for any doctor to recommend it," said his son, John Demjanjuk Jr., in an e-mail sent from Ohio.
Demjanjuk was deported in May from the United States and has been in custody in Munich since then. He could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of training as a guard in the Trawniki SS camp, then serving in the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
The prosecution argues that after Demjanjuk, a Soviet Red Army soldier, was captured by the Germans in 1942 he volunteered to serve under the SS as a guard.
Demjanjuk has denied that, saying he spent most of the rest of the war in Nazi POW camps before joining the so-called Vlasov army made up of Soviet POWs and other anti-communists to fight with the Germans against the encroaching Soviets in the final months of World War II.
Ulrich Busch, one of Demjanjuk's two lawyers, told the court that those Ukrainians who did volunteer to serve as guards did so to save themselves, noting that millions of Soviet POWs died at the hands of the Nazis.
"Germany did not only commit the Holocaust on the Jews, but also on the Red Army prisoners of war," he said. Those who trained at "Trawniki were survivors, not perpetrators."
Efraim Zuroff, the top Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the contention was offensive.
"It is a total distortion of the Holocaust and turns people with criminal responsibility into blameless victims," he said.
The trial comes after 30 years of legal action against Demjanjuk on three continents.
Demjanjuk 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 so-called "Hilfswillige" or "Hiwi" 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.
The prosecution argues that, even with no living witnesses who can implicate Demjanjuk in specific acts of brutality, just being a guard at a death camp means he was involved in murder. The 27,900 counts of accessory to murder come from the number of people transported to Sobibor and killed during the time Demjanjuk allegedly worked there.
Busch told the court that scores of others of higher rank have been acquitted of being part of the Nazi's machinery of destruction.
Karl Streibel, the commandant of the Trawniki training camp, was acquitted in 1976 after judges in Hamburg ruled there was insufficient proof he knew what the guards were being trained for.
Busch filed a motion seeking removal of the judges and prosecutors, saying the case should never have been brought to trial given the precedent.
"How can you say that the order-givers were innocent ... and the one who received the orders is guilty?" he asked. "There is a moral and legal double standard being applied today."
Alt, the presiding judge, did not immediately rule on the motion.
In deference to Demjanjuk's health, court sessions were limited to two 90-minute periods per day.
After sitting in a wheelchair during the first session, Demjanjuk was wheeled in on a gurney for the afternoon session, with two blankets covering his body and obscuring his face.
He was taken out after about 45 minutes to be examined, and Stein told the court he complained of severe pain and was given a shot of an analgesic the doctor said would not impair Demjanjuk's ability to concentrate. Stein recommended the session go for no more than another half-hour.
Afterward, Demjanjuk was wheeled back in lying on his back, his face visible and his eyes closed. His hands were clasped over his stomach as he listened to the Ukrainian translator at his side.
Zuroff suggested Demjanjuk was trying to appear more ill than he really was.
"He has a vested interest in appearing as sick and as frail as possible. And he's going to play it up to the hilt," he told The Associated Press.
Thomas Blatt, a Sobibor survivor who does not remember Demjanjuk serving as a camp guard but was to testify in general about his experiences there, said he hopes Demjanjuk addresses the court.
"I think that he should tell the truth, so that people will know about Sobibor," he told the AP. "The victims are dying out, the murderers are dying out – in 10 years it will all only be history. This is the last time he could talk and tell the world what happened."
This is the second major war crimes trial for Demjanjuk.
His conviction in Israel was based on evidence that included testimony from former Treblinka prisoners who claimed to recognize him as the brutal guard Ivan the Terrible. The Israeli high court freed him in 1993 after it received evidence that another Ukrainian, not Demjanjuk, was Ivan.
Demjanjuk's U.S. citizenship was restored but again revoked in 2002, based on fresh Justice Department evidence showing he concealed his service at Sobibor from immigration officials.
This time, however, there are no Sobibor survivors who claim to recognize Demjanjuk.
Demjanjuk questions the authenticity of one of the main pieces of evidence – a photo ID identifying Demjanjuk as a guard at Sobibor and saying he was trained at Trawniki. U.S. and German experts have declared the ID genuine.
Some of the most damning evidence comes from statements made by Ignat Danilchenko, a now-deceased Ukrainian who once served in the Soviet army and was exiled to Siberia after World War II for helping the Nazis.
In 1979, he told the Soviet KGB he served with Demjanjuk at Sobibor and that Demjanjuk "like all guards in the camp, participated in the mass killing of Jews."
However, the U.S. Office of Special Investigations has questioned the validity of his statements, saying they contained "numerous factual errors."
If convicted, Demjanjuk could receive credit in sentencing for some or all the time he spent behind bars in Israel. If acquitted, Demjanjuk will likely have to remain in Germany because he has been stripped of his U.S. citizenship.