| 20Dec2009 | staff

Anger simmers in Demjanjuk's home village

A kind-hearted farm boy is how villagers recall suspected Nazi-era war criminal John Demjanjuk in his native Ukraine where his trial has provoked outrage among those who knew him.

"He was a good man. When he was younger, he worked on a tractor. I was still young at the time and he let me ride on the harrow," said Demjanjuk's former neighbour Maria Zagrebelna, 79.

He padded it with grass so I would be more comfortable," she added.

The Demjanjuk family's shack is gone today, prey to a fire. The family "lived in deep poverty, like everyone at the time," another neighbour Maria Bondarchuk said.

Many in this small central Ukrainian village of Dubovy Makharyntsy where Demjanjuk spent his first 20 years slam the accusations that he helped murder 27,900 people at the notorious Sobibor concentration camp.

To villagers, John -- formerly Ivan Demjanjuk -- was an unexceptional youth.

"Here is Ivan," said 81-year-old Bondarchuk, pointing with a knotty finger to a hazy, round face on a yellowing photograph where Demjanjuk is pictured posing in a cap with five friends.

Grigory Nemyrivsky, 91, keeps fond memories of going to the cinema once a month with his friend Ivan. "We didn't have money to pay for the show, so we helped turn the film reel to watch the movie," he said.

Demjanjuk left his home village in 1940, never to return. Drafted into the Red Army, he was taken prisoner by German troops in 1942.

Demjanjuk then became a zealous guard for six months at the Sobibor extermination camp in German-occupied Poland in 1943, according to the charges at his trial which is due to resume on Monday in Munich.

Deported in May from the United States, to which he moved after World War II, Demjanjuk denies the accusations but admits to being rotated among several concentration camps until the end of the war.

"Everything that they say about him today, that he killed a lot of people... well if it's true, it's because they forced him to do it!" Nemyrivsky said.

"He wouldn't have been able to do that himself – I guarantee it 100 percent. He wouldn't have been capable, I know him well, he was my friend."

Ukraine's Jewish community disappeared under the Nazi occupation, with the German SS exploiting anger among the Ukrainian populace over their subjugation by the Soviet Union to recruit people for menial jobs.

Villagers said Demjanjuk got on well with the Jewish families living nearby. But that is difficult to verify because all the Jews were killed or fled amid the horrors of World War II.

The village has been closely following Demjanjuk's trial, which is likely to be the last major court case dealing with the Holocaust.

"I feel sorry for him that he is over there on trial," Zagrebelna said.

Even those who did not know Demjanjuk voiced sympathy.

"He is 89 years old, what is the good of putting him on trial now? He has already got one foot in the grave. If he is convicted, it won't change anything. It won't bring back the dead," pensioner Olga Basiliuk said.

"It was war then. We weren't the ones who started the war. It was the Germans. Now they want to put a Ukrainian on trial for these crimes!" Tetiana Djeruk said angrily.

AFP ([email protected])