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(photo credit: AP)
The opening of the John Demjanjuk trial on Monday in Munich had to be delayed by over an hour because of the flood of visitors - including Holocaust survivors - who wished to observe what might be the last prosecution of an alleged Nazi war criminal.
Munich's public prosecutor has charged the 89-year-old Demjanjuk with assisting in the murder of 27,900 Jews while serving as a concentration camp guard at Sobibor in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Demjanjuk entered the court in a wheelchair, his eyes closed. He wore a baseball cap and was covered in a blue blanket.
Demjanjuk kept his eyes closed throughout the proceedings and remained mute in response to the judge's questions about his personal details. He repeatedly opened his mouth, apparently wincing in pain.
AP reported that a doctor examined him two hours before the trial and found his physical condition to be stable. The trial will be limited to three hours each day in two 90-minute sessions, based on a doctor's evaluation of Demjanjuk's physical condition.
Ulrich Busch, Demjanjuk's German criminal defense attorney, compared his client with the survivors of concentrations camps. Demjanjuk was compelled to work in the Sobibor camp, and the Nazis issued orders to him that were "on the same level" as prisoners of extermination camps, said Busch.
Demjanjuk, who was born in the Ukraine, fled to the United States after the Holocaust.
"How can you say that those who gave the orders were innocent ... and the one who received the orders is guilty?" Busch told the court. "There is a moral and legal double standard being applied today."
Dr. Alexander Brenner, the former of head of the Berlin Jewish community, told The Jerusalem Post that the trial could contribute to showing the role of "collaborators in Russia, Latvia, and Ukraine" in carrying out the extermination of European Jewry. Brenner and his family fled Nazi-occupied Poland.
The widely read online edition of Der Spiegel termed the case on Monday a "trial of missed opportunities," and raised questions about the passivity of the Nazi research center in Ludwigsburg and its failure to pursue the Demjanjuk investigation.
Kurt Schrimm, the director of Ludwigsburg center, confirmed to the Post that the agency was aware "seven or eight years ago" of Demjanjuk's role as a guard at Sobibor. Schrimm said the center gained access to the records in the US and at Yad Vashem in Israel.
Asked why the center refused to commence a prosecution, Schrimm said that it "was determined that we could not pursue the accusations in Germany because Demjanjuk was a United States citizen."
According to critics in Germany and Israel, the German government systematically ignored cases like Demjanjuk's, as well as Nazis living in post-war Germany who were responsible for the Holocaust.
In 2007, the Wiesenthal Center issued a "failing grade" in its annual report to the German authorities for failing to seek indictments and convictions against Nazi war criminals. The Spiegel article suggested that the German authorities - including Ludwigsburg - remained largely passive and non-cooperative about hunting down Nazis.
"The Germans could have apprehended Demjanjuk if they wanted to," wrote Spiegel.
Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, said in a statement that, "Unquestionably, trials centered on crimes committed during the Holocaust serve as significant forums for raising awareness about the Holocaust. They provide an opportunity to highlight not only events, but to explore society-wide and individual responsibility for the atrocities that were committed during that time."
The opening of the trial attracted intense media interest, with 200 accredited journalists attending the first trial session. The trial is expected to run until May.
AP contributed to this report