Canadian Press | 23Feb2010 | David Rising

Holocaust expert testifies in Demjanjuk trial: Sobibor was a death sentence

MUNICH, Germany — Being sent to the Nazi's Sobibor camp was a death sentence for all but a handful of Jews, a Holocaust expert testified Tuesday at the trial of John Demjanjuk.

Johannes Houwink ten Cate, a professor at the University of Amsterdam's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, told the Munich state court that aside from the few Jews chosen to work, the thousands of others who boarded trains for the death camp had no chance of escape or survival.

[W.Z.  Mr. Houwink wrote an article titled "The Activities of Wachmann Iwan Demjanjuk (1940-1952)" for prosecution witness Jules Schelvis in which he made disparaging remarks about the Holodomor.]

"In my 25 years of research, I don't know of a single case in which someone who was said to have been murdered in Sobibor actually died elsewhere," he testified.

Demjanjuk, an 89-year-old retired Ohio autoworker, was deported from the United States in May and is accused of being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews at Sobibor. Prosecutors arrived at that figure after tallying transport lists of Jews sent there during the months Demjanjuk is alleged to have been a guard at the camp.

The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk rejects the charges, saying he has been mistaken for someone else. He maintains he was a Soviet soldier captured by the Germans and spent most of the war in prison camps.

During the proceedings Tuesday he showed no reaction to the testimony, lying on a bed wearing sunglasses and a green parka with blankets pulled up around him. During breaks, however, he talked with his attorney and his Ukrainian interpreter.

Houwink ten Cate was called as an expert witness to testify about the 1943 transports of Jews from the Netherlands to Sobibor, which was located in Nazi-occupied Poland.

He testified over the objections of Demjanjuk's defence attorney Ulrich Busch, who said Houwink ten Cate was prejudiced against his client. He cited a 2009 interview in which the professor told Dutch radio that Demjanjuk was "beyond a shadow of a doubt" an accomplice to mass murder.

"The witness prejudged the defendant in the worst possible way," Busch said.

Presiding Judge Ralph Alt allowed the witness but said his testimony would be limited to facts, not conclusions.

Houwink ten Cate told the court about 19 trains from Holland to Sobibor that went weekly starting in March 1943. Each carried between 1,000 to 3,000 men, women and children to be killed.

The Jews were told by the Nazis that they were being resettled in the east and did not know they were going to their deaths.

"Those being deported did not know before their trip where they were going," he testified.

The prosecution argues that a Nazi ID document proves that Demjanjuk was a guard at Sobibor, and that the transport lists prove how many people died at that time.

Busch argued again, however, that the ID document was a Soviet-era fake. He asked the court to call as a witness Alexej Weizen, a Sobibor survivor who lives in Russia. Weizen told Czech radio earlier this month that he recognized Demjanjuk as a guard from the camp from an old picture published in a Russian newspaper.

Weizen, however, had given statements previously to Soviet investigators and had never mentioned Demjanjuk in the roughly 30 years that Demjanjuk has faced investigations of his past.

A top investigator has said Weizen's statement was not credible, and trial prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he has no plans to call Weizen as a witness.

Busch said, however, that he believed authorities in Russia had persuaded Weizen to fabricate his story and that he should be examined as a witness to shed light on those tactics.

Aside from Weizen's claim, there are no known Sobibor survivors who can identify Demjanjuk from the camp.

The trial resumes Wednesday.

In the 1980s, Demjanjuk stood trial in Israel, accused of being the notoriously brutal guard "Ivan the Terrible" at the Treblinka extermination camp. He was convicted, sentenced to death - then freed when an Israeli court found that he was a victim of mistaken identity.