MUNICH, Nov 30 – Nazi death camp guard with the blood of tens of thousands on his hands or harmless and law-abiding family man? This is the crux of the case of John Demjanjuk, on trial in Germany from Monday.
The 89-year-old Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk faces charges that he herded 27,900 men, women and children into the gas chambers at the notorious Sobibor death camp, in what is being billed as Germany\’s last major war crimes trial.
Sixteen years after winning a dramatic reprieve from death row in Israel and 66 years after the war crimes took place, Demjanjuk is still top of Nazi-hunters\’ most-wanted list.
The trial, which has attracted enormous media interest, will not be the first time the burly and bespectacled Demjanjuk has had to answer for his war-time activities.
In 1986, he stood trial in Jerusalem accused of being "Ivan the Terrible," an infamous Ukrainian guard at another death camp, Treblinka.
Even in Treblinka, where beatings, gassing and torture were just part of the daily routine, "Ivan the Terrible" stood out for his perverse sadism.
According to witnesses during the Jerusalem trial, he would slice off women\’s breasts as they were driven, naked, to their deaths in the gas chambers.
After a lengthy trial, Demjanjuk was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death in 1988, only to be freed five years later when evidence surfaced proving Israel had got the wrong man.
A free man, Demjanjuk flew back to his home in Seven Hills, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, in business class, hoping to put his past behind him.
But prosecutors were not finished with him yet. After evidence emerged that he was a guard at other Nazi camps, he was stripped of his US citizenship in 2002 for lying about his war record on immigration forms.
After years of legal wrangling, he found himself in May this year being flown to the southern German city of Munich to stand trial again.
Demjanjuk strenuously denies being at any death camp.
He says he was captured by the Germans in 1942 while serving with the Red Army, then shunted around several POW camps until the war ended, where he worked for various refugee organisations before moving to Ohio.
Asked during his Jerusalem trial whether he had ever killed anyone in his life, Demjanjuk cried plaintively: "Never. I cannot even kill a chicken. My wife invariably did it."
For years in the United States, he lived a quiet and unassuming life, working as a Ford car mechanic, going to church and bringing up his three children with wife Vera.
Spiegel magazine spoke to a neighbour of the Demjanjuks who said the accused Nazi henchman\’s main preoccupation was his vegetable garden that he lovingly tended.
Now a frail, wheelchair-bound 89-year-old, suffering from a litany of health complaints including leukaemia, it is unlikely he will survive the proceedings, according to his son, also named John.
When he landed in Munich, photos showed him lying on a stretcher with tubes up his nose. As immigration agents removed him from his home, television pictures showed him moaning in agony.
This contrasted sharply with four secretly filmed surveillance videos released by the US Justice Department which showed him apparently getting out of a car without difficulty.
During his Jerusalem trial, he occasionally infuriated spectators by blowing kisses, performing stretching exercises and once shouting at a witness.
This time around, his lawyers say he may not even speak. Due to his health, the trial has been limited to two daily sessions of 90 minutes.
Exhausted by decades of what they see as persecution, his wife Vera told mass circulation daily Bild that the couple "just wanted to die in peace."
But for Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, who has tirelessly pursued Nazi criminals, the trial is of "extreme importance."
"Firstly, because he is the most wanted Nazi, top of the list we publish. But also because … we will finally know his exact role in the extermination machine," Zuroff told AFP.