If anyone hoped that the horrific crimes committed at the Sobibor death camp would occupy centre stage at the opening of the Demjanjuk trial, they were in for a rude awakening in Munich.
The mass-murder of 250,000 Jews in one of the lesser-known death camps in Poland was not yet the subject of the deliberations and unfortunately did not come up in the courtroom.
Instead, two issues dominated -- the health of the defendant and the claims of his attorney that Demjanjuk should not be prosecuted since higher-ranking commanders and guards of the camps in which he served had either been ignored, acquitted or given lighter sentences that he is likely to receive.
Besides the proceedings, it was the chaos surrounding the event which got most of the attention. With hundreds of journalists in Munich to cover the opening of the trial, but with the court relatively unprepared for the media onslaught, hundreds of us were left waiting outside in near-freezing weather, hoping against hope to obtain a coveted seat in the courtroom.
This meant that those who came to press an agenda had a captive audience of hundreds of frustrated journalists and camera crews hungry for news.
Whether it was a survivor urging people to remember Holocaust crimes and giving out candles to light, or a person demanding an investigation of a fire in a Munich synagogue in 1970, or those who came to give interviews on their views on Holocaust justice or related topics, they all had plenty of journalists looking for an alternative story in case they did not make it into the courtroom.
The scene brought back memories of the long lines to attend the opening of the Demjanjuk trial in the Binyanei ha-Uma convention centre in Jerusalem in 1987.
Only then it was a crowd primarily composed of amcha, regular people from all over Israel who wanted to attend the proceedings. There did not appear to be practically any such people there at the opening of the trial in Munich, and it turned the opening of the trial into more of a media event than anything else.
Once inside the courtroom, there were stringent security checks. At some point, everyone allowed in found him or herself confined with dozens of others in a completely closed-off area, which aroused among many of us unpleasant associations of the places where Demjanjuk served.
While there, I had a strange encounter which served as a chilling reminder of why such trials are so important.
I mentioned the crimes committed at Sobibor to a person next to me, to which a middle-aged blonde lady behind me interjected: “What crimes?”
When I responded that I was referring to the crimes of the Holocaust, her retort was “What did the Ukrainians have to do with that?”
I succinctly noted the important role played by Ukrainian Nazi collaborators in the mass-murder of Jews during the Shoah, but I doubt they convinced the woman who, a bit later (we were “incarcerated” together for quite some time awaiting entry to the court), started speaking to me about the “Jewish race”.
It was only later, that I learned her identity.
A Ukrainian living in Germany, she is the wife of one of Demjanjuk’s defence attorneys [Dr. Uli Busch], who yesterday attempted to compare his client, a volunteer for service with the SS who was a guard at the Sobibor death camp, to Thomas Blatt, a survivor of the camp whose family was murdered there.
I rest my case.
Dr Efraim Zuroff is a Holocaust historian and the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Dr Zuroff’s new book, ‘Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice’, will be published next week in the UK by Palgrave/MacmillanLast updated: 4:12pm, December 10 2009