'Soviet POWs were utilized by Nazis'

Expert at Demjanjuk trial: Red Army prisoners used regularly in German's machinery of mass murder.

Accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk. (photo credit: AP)
Accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk.
(photo credit: AP)
Former Soviet prisoners of war were trained by the Nazis as guards andused regularly in the Germans' machinery of mass murder, a historiantestified Wednesday at the trial of John Demjanjuk.The Ukrainian-born retired Ohio auto worker, once a Soviet Red Armysoldier, is accused of volunteering to serve as a guard for the SS andtraining at the Nazi's Trawniki camp following his capture in 1942.Demjanjuk is charged with 27,900 counts of accessory to murder for hisalleged activities as a guard at the Nazi's Sobibor death camp, also inoccupied Poland, in 1943.
The 89-year-old Demjanjuk rejects the charges, saying he never servedas a camp guard. The trial in Germany comes after 30 years of legalaction against Demjanjuk on three continents.Dieter Pohl, an expert at Munich's Ludwig Maximilian University,described the history of the so-called "Trawniki men," many of themSoviet POWs recruited by the Nazis, to the Munich state court onWednesday.
Demjanjuk spent the proceedings lying on a bed and listening to aninterpreter. As during previous sessions, he wore a blue baseball cappulled low over his face.The guards' involvement in the Nazis' mass murder of Jews started withoperations to clear Jewish ghettos in Poland in early 1942, Pohl said.They later were used at death camps including Sobibor, where anestimated 100 to 150 "Trawniki men" were stationed at a time, he said.Witnesses have said the guards were "were active in all parts of thecamp, also in the gas chambers," Pohl said. Among other things, he saidwitnesses said the guards helped unload incoming trains full ofprisoners and walked behind groups the Nazis were sending to the gaschambers.While there are many accounts of violence by the guards, few of thosecan be attributed to individuals, the historian said. He conceded thatdocumentation of the guards' use at Sobibor is "fragmentary."There are no direct living witnesses to Demjanjuk's alleged activitiesat Sobibor but prosecutors say, if he was a guard there, he wasinvolved in the Nazi machinery of destruction.
Demjanjuk denies ever serving as a guard, saying he spent much of thewar in Nazi POW camps before joining the so-called Vlasov Army ofanti-communist Soviet POWs, formed to fight alongside the Germansagainst the Soviets in the final months of World War II.His defense lawyers question the authenticity of a key piece ofevidence - an SS identity card that prosecutors say features a photo ofa young Demjanjuk and that says he worked at Sobibor.
The "Trawniki men" declared when they signed up for service that theyhad no Jewish ancestors, weren't members of communist organizations,and committed themselves to serve for the duration of the war, Pohlsaid. They were trained in escorting prisoners.Still, Pohl noted that Germans tended to view them as "ratherunreliable personnel," with poor education and poor German. As well asUkrainians, they included former prisoners from the Baltic states andelsewhere, and Soviet citizens of German background.
Demjanjuk has faced decades of legal issues.He had his US citizenship revoked in 1981 after the Justice Departmentalleged he hid his past as the notorious Treblinka guard "Ivan theTerrible." He was extradited to Israel, where he was found guilty andsentenced to death in 1988, only to have the conviction overturned fiveyears later as a case of mistaken identity.In the latest prosecution, Demjanjuk is accused of serving as a"Wachmann" or guard, the lowest rank of the volunteers who weresubordinate to German SS men. It is the first time a conviction hasbeen sought against someone so low-ranking without proof of a specificoffense.