Seifert lawyer challenges Nazi survivor
By SUSAN SACHS
Special to the Globe and Mail
Thursday, September 29, 2005 Page A13
VERONA, ITALY -- The lawyer for a Canadian man accused of killing prisoners in a Nazi transit camp during the Second World War electrified a Federal Court hearing here yesterday by questioning the credibility of the 85-year-old camp survivor who was the government's first witness.
Lawyer Douglas Christie, who represents retired Vancouver mill worker Michael Seifert, presented the court with documents drawn from camp records that appeared to contradict elements of the former inmate's account of her time in solitary confinement under Mr. Seifert's control.
On Tuesday, Maria Teresa Scala identified Mr. Seifert as one of two guards at the Bolzano camp who participated in torturing a young prisoner by poking him in the eyes in an isolation cellblock in early 1945.
The challenge to Ms. Scala's testimony prompted an emotional courtroom exchange over the essence of truth and memory, underlining the difficulties in examining traumatic events that took place 60 years ago.
Whether it will undermine the case against Mr. Seifert was not immediately clear. "It's too soon to say," said Barney Brucker, the federal lawyer in the proceedings. "It may mean nothing."
Mr. Seifert, an ethnic German born in Ukraine, moved to Canada in 1951 and became a citizen in 1970. He is fighting a government attempt to strip him of his Canadian citizenship and deport him on charges that he concealed his role in Nazi war crimes.
The Federal Court of Canada hearing the case has shifted temporarily to Verona for two weeks to hear testimony from Italians who were prisoners in the camp in northern Italy.
Mr. Seifert, now 81, faces possible extradition to Italy to serve a life sentence. He was convicted five years ago by a Verona military court, in absentia, for murder, torture and rape. He admits he was a guard at the Bolzano camp, but denies the charges.
The Bolzano camp opened in 1944 to hold anti-fascist political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals and other Italians used as forced labour in nearby factories and farms. Thousands of its inmates were transferred to extermination camps, according to Italian authorities. At the time, northern Italy was a self-declared rump state controlled by a pro-German government, while the rest of Italy had already surrendered to the Allies.
Ms. Scala, as other witnesses expected to testify at the Federal Court hearing, also testified in the military trial. Arrested for her anti-fascist activities, she spent six months at the Bolzano camp, including at least 40 days in solitary confinement in early 1945.
She testified that a prisoner in an isolation cell next to her was a priest named Andrea Gaggero.
Mr. Christie, in his cross-examination, said that camp records and the priest's own memoir showed that he had been deported from Bolzano to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria in mid-December, 1944. In the memoir, published in 1991 shortly before his death, the priest also said the only other prisoner in the isolation block was a Jewish man.
Towering over the diminutive Ms. Scala in his broad-shouldered black courtroom robe, Mr. Christie grilled her repeatedly over the discrepancies between her account and that of the priest.
"You are either mistaken," he told the elderly witness, "or you are lying."
Ms. Scala, flushed but defiant, maintained that she had been imprisoned next to the priest, that they spoke through a hollow brick wall separating them and that he was present during the time that Mr. Seifert and another guard tortured another prisoner.
No one, she said, could challenge her experience and the authority of her suffering.
But she refused to be drawn into saying whether she believed the priest was wrong or untruthful in his chronology of his imprisonment at Bolzano.
"I respect him," she said. "But I was in the cell. I saw and heard, and this is what matters. Whether it was December or January, what does it change? What's the difference?"
When Mr. Christie told her that he was seeking the truth, Ms. Scala shot back, "That's why I am here."
"There are things," she added, "that are so far away in time that the human mind may make confusion. I am not speaking of mine or Don Gaggero's mind. I am speaking of the human mind that has gone through hell."
© Globe and Mail 2005
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