The German Demjanjuk: Witness in War Crimes Trial Could Face Indictment

By Georg Bönisch and Jan Friedmann

Samuel K. is expected to testify in the upcoming Nazi war crimes trial against 89-year-old John Demjanjuk. The witness himself has admitted in the past that he had aided the SS in its murderous practices. He has never been forced to answer before a court despite being "strongly suspected" of aiding and abetting the murder of 434,000 people.

Platoon member Samuel K. (third from right, holding a musical instrument) in the Belzec concentration camp. "We all realized that the Jews were exterminated and later also burned there," K. has said. Zoom
Heimatmuseum in Tomaszow Lubelski

Platoon member Samuel K. (third from right, holding a musical instrument) in the Belzec concentration camp. "We all realized that the Jews were exterminated and later also burned there," K. has said.

Samuel K. is nearly 89 years old, hard of hearing and has a pacemaker. Taking this into consideration, two investigators from the Bavarian State Office of Criminal Investigation decided to question the witness at home. They visited K. in his attractive little house near Bonn, which has a view of the Drachenfels mountain on the other side of the Rhine River.

The old man spoke openly. Yes, he said, he had been recruited by the SS and trained at the Trawniki camp, east of the Polish city of Lublin. Yes, he admitted, he had served at the Belzec camp, also located on Polish territory. He said that nobody had any doubts about what happened there. "We all realized that the Jews were exterminated and later also burned there. We could even smell that every day."

The meeting, which took place in June, lasted roughly an hour. Samuel K. has since been subpoenaed to repeat his testimony in the spectacular trial of the alleged concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk, who is also 89 years old.

According to the indictment prepared by the Munich public prosecutor's office, in 1943 Demjanjuk was an accessory to the murder of at least 27,900 Jews in Sobibor, an extermination camp like Belzec. The trial is scheduled to begin on Nov. 30, with over 30 co-plaintiffs. Two weeks ago, Germany's Constitutional Court rejected Demjanjuk's final appeal against the opening of the proceedings.

Casting a Pall on the Proceedings

This paves the way for two men to meet in the Munich regional court -- men who both allegedly bear a similar burden of guilt: They purportedly helped the SS to commit mass murder, Demjanjuk as a simple Wachmann, or armed auxiliary recruit, and K. toward the end of his career in the camps as a slightly higher ranking Zugwachmann, or platoon member. But while one is sitting in the dock, the other will be called to take the witness stand.

The contradiction casts a pall on these proceedings. The upcoming trial is making headlines around the world, but it also reveals how coincidences and inadequacies have characterized for decades -- and still characterize -- the prosecution of alleged Nazi war criminals in German courts.

The German justice system succeeded in having Demjanjuk extradited from the United States following a long and bitter legal dispute -- and he is to face charges in Germany despite the fact that he has already served several years in an Israeli prison in connection with his past. By contrast, Samuel K. was able to lead a quiet life in Germany for over 60 years, like many other Nazi henchmen.

This is rather surprising since K. has never attempted to hide from German authorities the fact that he had been recruited by the SS to aid in its murderous activities. His latest official statement is at least his fourth, and it was preceded by additional affidavits from the years 1969, 1975 and 1980.

A Murder Technique that Heralded the Holocaust

He recounted nightmarish practices. For example, K. said that he saw a truck loaded with what he presumed to be Jews who were "killed by feeding the exhaust fumes into a sealed compartment while driving" -- a murder technique that heralded the beginning of the Holocaust. "The corpses of the Jews gassed in the camp" were buried in pits, and later burned, he said, because people "could no longer stand the stench." K. said that he had "no interest" in speaking about this with SPIEGEL.

K. was part of a group of approximately 5,000 foreign helpers, primarily Ukrainians and ethnic Germans, who were trained by the Nazis at the Trawniki camp to aid in the mass murders in occupied Eastern Europe. Some of these men volunteered, while others were coerced into collaborating in the Holocaust.

K. is an ethnic German, born in Sichelberg on the Volga. He was captured as a member of the Red Army and placed in a German prisoner of war camp -- just like Demjanjuk. When the 20-year-old arrived in the camp in Chelm, Poland, conditions were atrocious, and many detainees came down with dysentery, he said. "Every day we had to stand by and watch as roughly 10 to 20 of our comrades were buried."

He volunteered for guard duty, K. told investigators, because this was his only chance to save his life. "We had no choice but to accept this offer."

Operation Reinhardt

After his training, he and men like Demjanjuk were given duties in camps established as part of Operation Reinhardt, the code name for a Nazi plan that cost the lives of approximately 1.75 million Jews. According to his SS identification card and other documents, Demjanjuk served from March to September 1943 in Sobibor. Samuel K., by his own accounts, worked in Belzec from New Year's Eve 1941/42 to the spring of 1943.

As the Red Army advanced, these so-called foreign units were transferred toward Germany along with other German military units. Records show that from the autumn of 1943 Demjanjuk was a guard at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria, where he was later captured by the Americans. K. guarded Jewish labor battalions in Warsaw before he was dispatched with his unit to build field positions. He experienced the end of the war in Czechoslovakia.

Demjanjuk emigrated to the US in 1952 and K. acquired German citizenship and settled in the Rhineland. Both of them established new livelihoods for themselves, one as an autoworker in Ohio, the other as a low-ranking civil servant on the payroll of a German ministry.

It was only because Demjanjuk stated on his US immigration application that he had spent time at Sobibor that the Nazi hunters at the US Justice Department later took notice of him. This was followed by decades of legal wrangling over his extradition. Meanwhile, the German authorities left K. alone.

Samuel K. has never been a defendant in a case. In the initial years following World War II, German prosecutors were interested, at most, in pursuing the principal offenders -- and even they often got off scot-free. For instance, the trial of the commander of the Trawniki training camp, Karl Streibel, ended with an acquittal in Hamburg in 1976. And until a few years ago, German authorities agreed that subordinate foreign SS helpers should not be prosecuted.

Demjanjuk's trial appears to signal an extremely belated reversal in this policy by Germany's justice system, which is now sparing no effort to gain a conviction. The trial promises to be an exhausting and drawn-out affair. Due to the defendant's poor health, the proceedings will be limited to three hours per day. Observers expect that it will take at least a year before a judgment is handed down. The court has already scheduled 35 days of proceedings until May 2010.

Witness Has No Recollection of Demjanjuk

Demjanjuk doesn't have to worry about being directly incriminated by K.'s testimony because the witness has already said that he has no recollection of his former comrades from the war. K. was also unable to identify the defendant when the Criminal Investigations Department showed him a range of similar passport photos, one of them showing the young Demjanjuk.

On the other hand, it is Samuel K. who may have to fear the long overdue wrath of German prosecutors. For ages now, key information concerning his activities and whereabouts during World War II has been on record with the Central Office of the Judicial Authorities of the Federal States for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in Ludwigsburg, Germany. Nevertheless, it wasn't until the Demjanjuk trial that investigators took an avid interest in Samuel K.'s past. Now a preliminary investigation has been launched against him by the Nazi hunters in Ludwigsburg, and this may very well lead to an indictment, such as in the case of Demjanjuk.

The allegations are extremely grave. Investigators say that K. is "strongly suspected of aiding and abetting the horrific murder of at least 434,000 people."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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