Will Nazi Trial Bring Closure to Holocaust Survivors?

Based on this figure, the prosecution intends to use the Demjanjuk trial to establish a landmark in German legal history. The question is not whether the defendant murdered with his own hands. As a guard, Demjanjuk was part of the system in Sobibor, say the prosecutors, and the sole purpose of this camp was the mass and efficient murder of people. Demjanjuk has consistently denied the charges.

Taking the Stand

And what of the victims? Two survivors of Sobibor are expected to take the stand: Thomas Blatt and Jules Schelvis. Blatt, an 82-year-old Polish Jew, was 16 years old when he managed to escape during a prisoner revolt in October 1943. His younger brother and his parents died in the camp. The other witness, the 88-year-old Dutchman Jules Schelvis, was immediately taken aside to work in a labor detail following his arrival in Sobibor on June 4, 1943 -- his wife Chel, their parents and younger siblings died. Both men have written books that are considered standard works, and both have appeared in court as co-plaintiffs at earlier trials.

As for those co-plaintiffs who are not witnesses, they will have to content themselves with merely observing the proceedings once they have confirmed their identities. They are not expected to play an active role in the trial before the closing arguments are made.

The short lives of the victims won't be the focus of this trial, but rather the long life of the defendant and the state of his health. Demjanjuk has been diagnosed with a preliminary stage of leukemia. Statistically speaking, he has a life expectancy of less than a year. A nerve in his back is pinched, which causes him pain while in a sitting position, and he suffers from gout from time to time. He was recently vaccinated for swine flu, but had an adverse reaction to the immunization.

It is very possible that these proceedings won't end with a verdict because the defendant will have been declared unfit to stand trial.

'Why Me?'

Co-plaintiff David van Huiden says that it isn't as if he has to deal with the Holocaust every day. He had a successful career as a businessman, culminating with a position as chairman of a Dutch importers' association. He is happily married to his wife Liesbeth, who is also a survivor, and he has two grown sons and a grandson. But there is one question that he hasn't been able to answer his whole life long: "Why am I the one who survived? Why me and not the others?"

It is the survivors, not the perpetrators, who are plagued by feelings of guilt. That is the final bitter irony of the Holocaust. This also explains why it so important for the survivors that the guilty parties can be identified, even if every trial is a struggle for the justice system and for themselves.

Mary Richheimer Leijden van Amstel, 70, will travel with her husband to attend the trial, although her daughter has tried to dissuade her. "She thinks it will be too much of an emotional strain for me, but I am determined." She survived as a child, hidden away. Her parents, her grandparents and her cousins died in Sobibor.

"Traveling to Munich," says Richheimer, "is the only thing that I can still do for them."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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