Ukrainian guards outnumbered Nazi SS men 10-to-one at the Sobibor death camp, but they fell strictly under the Germans' authority, a Jewish survivor testified Wednesday at the trial of John Demjanjuk.
Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, an 89-year-old retired Ohio autoworker, is accused of serving as a low-level guard at the camp in occupied Poland and is charged with accessory to murder in 27,900 deaths. It is the first time a conviction has been sought against someone so low-ranking without proof of a specific offense. Demjanjuk rejects the charges, saying he never served in Sobibor or any other Nazi camp.
Witness Thomas Blatt, 82, has told the Munich state court he did not remember Demjanjuk from Sobibor, where he was a prisoner in 1943. In his first day of testimony Tuesday, however, Blatt said that if Demjanjuk was there, he would have been involved in the extermination of Jews.
On Wednesday, he testified that the Ukrainians were an integral part of the Sobibor death camp, though he did not know details about how they operated.
"I didn't know a lot about them...," he said. "The Ukrainians were on one side of the process of murder, and I was a Jew on the other side."
When pressed by Demjanjuk's defense attorney Ulrich Busch, Blatt conceded that the 150 or so Ukrainians who acted as guards came under the authority of the approximately 15 German SS men at the camp.
"The German was God" at Sobibor, he testified.
Demjanjuk claims to be a victim of mistaken identity - a Red Army draftee from Ukraine captured in 1942.
He maintains he was himself held prisoner until joining the so-called Vlasov Army of anti-communist Soviet POWs and others, formed to fight with the Germans against the encroaching Soviets in the final months of the war.
Though Demjanjuk's defense maintains he was never at Sobibor, Busch also has argued that the Ukrainian guards had agreed to serve the Nazis only to escape likely death in POW camps, and that they would have been killed if they didn't follow orders.
As in previous sessions, Demjanjuk lay on a bed throughout the proceedings Wednesday morning, a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. Demjanjuk - who suffers from several medical problems - has been declared fit to face trial, so long as court sessions are limited to two 90-minute sessions per day.
Blatt, who today lives in California, told the court of losing his mother, father and brother in Sobibor, shortly after the family was deported to the camp from their town in Poland in April 1943. Blatt was spared because he was selected to work in the camp.
He said it was hard to explain now what life there was like. He said if he had lost any family member before Sobibor, he would have "cried day and night." But after his parents and brother were killed, he "didn't cry at all."
"We were on a different planet," he said.
The trial continues later Wednesday. If convicted, Demjanjuk faces up to 15 years in prison.
Demjanjuk had his US citizenship revoked in 1981 after the Justice Department alleged he hid his past as the notorious Treblinka guard "Ivan the Terrible." He was extradited to Israel, where he was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1988, only to have the conviction overturned five years later as a case of mistaken identity.