The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Demjanjuk Case
The Trial
1986 - 1988

(Part 1 of 2)


Demjanjuk's trial before the special tribunal (Supreme Court Judge Dov Levin, and Jerusalem District Court Judges Zvi Tal and Dahlia Dorner) was opened with the reading out session on November 26, 1986. For practical purposes, the hearings commenced only on February 16, 1987 and this primarily in response by the Court to applications for postponement filed by the defense, to enable it to prepare properly for the trial.


Demjanjuk was represented by Advocates Mark O'Connor and John Gil (U.S.A.) who were authorized by the Minister of Justice to represent him in Israel, and by the Israeli lawyer, Yoram Sheftel. At a later stage of the trial, the defense was joined by Adv. Paul Chumak (Canada). (Adv. O'Connor was dismissed toward the end of the hearing of the evidence for the prosecution and before the hearing of the evidence for the defense began).


A. The entire trial took place in the Binyanei Ha'uma, Jerusalem, where an appropriate infrastructure was set up, which would meet the complex needs of the conduct of this trial. In fact, everything involved in the conduct of the trial was assembled in one building: the courtroom, the judges' chambers, Demjanjuk's detention room where he also met with his attorneys, the offices of the prosecution and the defense, the interpreters' offices and translation rooms. Offices in which the recorded minutes could be taken down and typed simultaneously in Hebrew and in English. Offices for the security and guard services, telephone and facsimile services, and communication services for the general public and the press and more.

B. One of the considerations that tipped the balance in favor of exposing the entire course of the trial to the public in Israel and the rest of the world was the loudly voiced complaints as to the inability of the judiciary system in Israel to conduct a trial properly against one suspected of nazi crimes, since this was the 'victims' state'. The accessibility of the judiciary hearings as stated enabled anyone who wished to follow the course of the trial.

C. Another important reason adduced as to why the trial should be held in the Binyanei Ha'uma, was the unprecedented interest of the media and the general public at home and abroad in this trial. This interest led the parties concerned to conclude that the 'open court' principle would be duly put into practice at this trial, only if everyone who so wished could be part of the public in attendance in the courtroom or could watch the proceedings through the media.


A. The general framework of the conduct of the case in Israel was dictated in practice long before Demjanjuk was brought to trial. This by the very fact that the State of Israel's application for extradition was based on the testimony of the identification witnesses from Treblinka as given to INC as early as 1976 and 1979 and as confirmed either in evidence (in the United States) or in depositions (in Israel) in the years that followed. It thus appeared that the fulcrum of this case would stabilize around Demjanjuk's crimes at Treblinka and the evidence proving those deeds of his would rest on the testimony of the identification witnesses, as described. In practise, the case proceeded along three channels of evidence, whose accumulation was intended to prove (the acts) imputed to Demjanjuk in the indictment: membership in the S.S., training at the camp at Trawniki, crimes at the Treblinka death camp as operator of the gas chambers there and at the Sobibor death camp.

B. The defense claimed all along that Demjanjuk had fallen into German captivity where he remained throughout the war, that he never volunteered to serve with the S.S. and that he was therefore not a member of the killing team at the camps of Treblinka and Sobibor or an operator of the gas chambers -- as alleged in the indictment.


A. The court sittings were held continuously -- morning and afternoon on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

B. The inaugural session, on February 16, 1987, was dedicated to the hearing of all questions relating to the competence of the State of Israel to judge Demjanjuk (general competence and specific competence in light of the laws of Israel and the United States and the inter- state treaty), written summations were presented (including pleadings, appendices and judgments) and oral pleadings were heard. After the Court had given its decision whereby the indictment and the offenses imputed to Demjanjuk were consistent with the wording of the extradition treaty and the intention of the U.S. authorities and that the Court was competent to judge him, the opening arguments of the prosecution were heard and the recital of the evidence for the prosecution began.


Its first twenty-one sessions (February 1 through March 20, 1987) were dedicated to the issue of Demjanjuk's crimes at the Treblinka death camp. The prosecution also put on the witness stand those survivors of Treblinka who had pointed to the photograph of Demjanjuk as the man they remembered as operating the gas chambers at the camp. Likewise, written evidence was submitted and the testimony was heard of the police interrogators who had conducted the investigation in which the aforesaid identification was made back in 1976.


The months April to July 1987 were devoted to the hearing of testimony and the submission of evidence on the other two central issues:

A. Proof of Demjanjuk's being an S.S. man who had volunteered to serve at Trawniki and Sobibor.

B. Refutation of the alibi alleged by Demjanjuk.


As to Demjanjuk's enlisting in the S.S., his preparation and training at Trawninki and his service as a member of the killing team at the Sobibor camp -- the 'Trawniki certificate' constituted a central axis of evidence. The 'Trawniki certificate' is an original nazi certificate of Demjanjuk's containing his portrait photograph, his personal particulars, his S.S. service number (1393) and a record of his being posted to two places where he served during the war period -- Okshov and the Sobibor death camp.

The certificate was sent to Israel from the U.S.S.R., having been located there in an archives in which were kept nazi documents captured by the Red Army in the summer of 1944 and thereafter.

Contrary to the approach which governed the proceedings in the United States, the certificate was perceived by the Prosecution in Israel as a most important piece of evidence in proving Demjanjuk's guilt from both the factual and the legal point of view.

First, the prosecution was of the opinion that this was preponderant unambiguous evidence of Demjanjuk's being an S.S. soldier, who underwent training and preparation at the S.S. camp at Trawninki, which is to say that it determines his general status. Not an innocent man as he pleaded but a nazi criminal of the worst kind.

Second, the certificate enables the determination to be made that Demjanjuk was one of a limited number of Wachmans chosen to serve as murderers at the death camps -- particularly Sobibor on March 27, 1943. Out of several million Russian prisoners of war, held at the POW camps of nazi Germany, only about 5,000 volunteered to serve the S.S. in various capacities. Of these, serving at camps whose sole purpose was nothing but killing (as distinct from concentration camps or forced labor camps) -- about 500 Wachmans only. This determination has a direct bearing on Demjanjuk's crimes. And indirectly the Prosecution alleged, it also placed him nearer Treblinka. A not less important incidental result was the absolute refutation of the alibi plea based on the certificate, since it was not possible to be a POW in detention, and an S.S. man holding such a certificate at one and the same time.

This view of matters prompted the prosecution to invest great efforts, so that the proof of the veracity of the certificate, with all that that implied, would be completely unbreachable. What made the point even sharper was the fact that since the case began to be conducted in the United states and all along the way the main plea of the defense was that the certificate was a KGB forgery, that no such certificates were ever issued to Wachmans, and that this one had been created from scratch and sent to the United States in order to incriminate Demjanjuk in the eyes of the U.S. authorities.

Accordingly the need to prove the bona fides of the document from every possible aspect led the prosecution to present in court three sets of evidence on the subject.

- An historical set: which was analysed with the aid of experts from Germany having a perspective and historical expertise on the one hand and German witnesses having served with the S.S. at Trawniki in the relevant years on the other hand -- everything written on the certificate, including stamps, signtures, ranks etc., so as to prove that they were consistent with the facts as they had actually been in real time.

- A forensic set: proved with the aid of local and foreign experts the authenticity of each element found on the certificate and which was verifiable: either by analyzing the document and the signatures and examining them by way of document comparison, or by chemical and other analyses of the paper on which the certificate was written, fountain pen ink, typewriter ribbon ink, the ink of the stamps on the certificate, the printed lettering, the typed lettering, the photographic paper of Demjanjuk's photograph on the certificate, glue and other stains on it, marks of attrition, grooves, creases, perforations etc.

- Attributing the certificate to Demjanjuk: an application to prove that writing and entries on the certificate correspond to his personal particulars, including a comparative anthropological analysis of his facial features, as appearing on the passport photograph thereon -- with other known passport photographs of Demjanjuk's.

Also testifying was a Prison Service physician Dr. Zigelbaum, as regards two important medical details: the location of a scar on Demjanjuk's back -- a detail appearing in the German entries on the Trawniki certificate as a special identifying mark of the bearer of the certificate and thereby imparting to the certificate yet another touch of authenticity. A scar was likewise found under Demjanjuk's left armpit -- remaining from the S.S. tattoo that existed there in the past, and which was removed by Demjanjuk after the war, by reason of being so incriminating.


To the matter of the alibi: Apart from the need to prove that Demjanjuk lied in his contradictory versions regarding his alibi, expert witnesses were called to prove the implausibility of his version under the conditions and circumstances he described, in view of the knowhow existing from an historic point of view. Here numerous documents submitted in evidence were combined with the testimony of expert witnesses being military historians and researchers specializing in the matters under review.

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