(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Dec. 1, 2009)
VINELAND — Esther Raab says she remembers John Demjanjuk.
She remembers him as a Ukrainian soldier, working in a Nazi death camp in Poland when she was a captive there in 1943. He would bring ammunition into the armory, where it would be fed into chains for machine guns. He would then leave with the ammo, and she’d hear the firing squads execute camp prisoners. Demjanjuk would return with the spent ammo.
“He wasn’t the tops,” Raab said. “He helped with transport. He put in the bullets. He went with the machine (gun).”
“When they caught him in America,” Raab said, “I said, ‘I remember him.’”
Today, Demjanjuk stands trial in Munich, Germany, for alleged war crimes in arguably the world’s most watched trial, as German prosecutors bring forth a case that, according to the German magazine focus, will have no eyewitnesses.
Meanwhile, the 88-year-old Raab sits more than 4,000 miles away in her adopted hometown of Vineland, with no part in the trial. She spent nine months at the Sobibor death camp in Poland before escaping in 1943 during a successful uprising there and hiding in a family friend’s barn for months. She later came to the U.S. with her husband, Irving, and they settled in Vineland, where their chicken farm grew to become Vineland Kosher Poultry, which bills itself as one of the nation’s three largest kosher chicken slaughterhouses.
Raab says she would testify in the Demjanjuk trial if asked. After all, it wouldn’t be her first war crimes trial. She testified in the 1950 trial of former Sobibor gas chamber operator Erich Bauer after she and a fellow Sobibor survivor spotted him at an amusement park. Bauer was subsequently convicted of mass murder. She also testified in other cases, including in defense of a Sobibor officer who was acquitted after she spoke of his kindness to prisoners.
This time, however, no one has called.
“She some years ago could not identify him in a photo spread provided by U.S. government officials,” said Martin Mendelsohn, an attorney representing Sobibor survivors’ descendants who have joined in the case.
That was more than 32 years ago. It’s why in 1993, after she first went public with her recollections, the Simon Wiesenthal Center recommended that her testimony not be used in Israel’s case against Demjanjuk.
Now prosecutors have again gone on without her, proceeding in a case with a legal history like no other.
Soviet soldier, captured
Demjanjuk became a conscripted Soviet Union soldier in 1941, later surrendered to the Germans and served at Nazi concentration camps during the war. He came to the U.S. in 1951 and became a citizen in 1958, raising a family in the Cleveland area and working in an auto plant.
After discovering his alleged background at Sobibor and other camps, the U.S. stripped his citizenship in 1981 and extradited him to Israel, where he was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1988 for allegedly being “Ivan the Terrible,” an infamous officer at the Treblinka death camp. Israel overturned his conviction in 1993 after the Soviet Union collapsed, freeing up records that showed Demjanjuk was probably not “Ivan the Terrible.”
Demjanjuk returned to Cleveland and regained his citizenship in 1998, only to have the U.S. strip it again in 2002 for allegedly hiding his wartime role. Once again, he was deported, leaving Germany to claim him and bring charges of mass murder against him. He insists the charges are a case of mistaken identity.
His trial in Munich began Monday. Germany has seen more than 5,000 war crimes trials since World War II, but few have gone forth without eyewitnesses, just one more unusual aspect of the Demjanjuk case.
“That’s not very common,” said Andreas Eichmüller, a historian at the Institute of Contemporary Studies in Munich. “The normal procedure is that you have eyewitnesses. I would say it’s a special case.”
The Press contacted the prosecution to inquire about the lack of eyewitnesses. Barbara Stockinger, a spokeswoman and chief prosecutor for the Munich public prosecutor’s office, asked Tuesday that questions be e-mailed to her but did not respond to the questions.
Likewise , the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, which had handled Demjanjuk’s deportation and other war crimes investigations, declined to comment.
“Right now, we really aren’t commenting because of the ongoing German case,” said Laura Sweeney, a spokeswoman for OSI.
Time takes memories, witnesses
It’s not that investigators don’t seek to use eyewitnesses. But time is passing. The events at issue in the Demjanjuk case happened more than 60 years ago, leaving few surviving witnesses.
But also, eyewitnesses’ recollections can be tricky, according to Peter Black, a former historian with the OSI.
“The best thing that survivors did for OSI prosecutors was to tell the judges what was happening inside the camps, regardless of whether they could identify photos,” said Black, now a senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “We tended to get into trouble when we tried to use survivor testimony to identify people. We always tried. Most people couldn’t identify them by photos. It was always problematic with people who had been in the paper a lot.”
Death camp survivors often remembered for decades the soldiers they saw regularly on a daily basis, but they did not always correctly identify those they saw less regularly, Black said. The most reliable way to try cases, according to Black, has been to use documents.
Edward Nishnic Sr., Demjanjuk’s ex-son-in-law, says the lack of eyewitnesses reflects the fact that Demjanjuk did not play the crucial role that prosecutors say he did. Nishnic, who spearheaded Demjanjuk’s defense fund for years, said Nishnic was victimized by the Germans as a prisoner of war and now again on trial. He said Raab’s intentions “may be well-placed” but incorrect, but he doesn’t feel the same about German prosecutors and the Wiesenthal Center, the famed Nazi-hunting organization.
A Wiesenthal Center spokeswoman said the organization’s expert on the case, Efraim Zuroff, was in Munich and could not be reached by telephone.
“The trial wouldn’t be going on if we were looking for real Nazis,” said Nishnic, whose father and uncles served for the U.S. in World War II. “Efraim Zuroff knows it, and OSI knows it. There’s more Nazis sitting in a bar watching this trial of a man who’s accused of just being there.”
Spotted again, but long ago
Raab said the reality of Sobibor executions by firing squads was that sometimes there were no eyewitnesses, and the reality of camps was fear. She said she saw Demjanjuk near a movie theater in Poland after Sobibor was shut down but did nothing about it because the war was still ongoing. Sobibor is unique in that a Jewish uprising in 1943 led to Raab and others gaining their freedom. The Nazis dismantled the camp, so it was never liberated by Allied forces who could then secure records from the camp.
“Until the last day, we didn’t know who shot who,” Esther Raab said. “I just know the Nazis who took care of the ammunition, and whenever there was shooting to do, everyone wanted it.
“Everyone wanted to shoot,” Raab added. “Everyone wanted to kill. We were there just for the killing. How many years is it that I escaped?”
“Sixty-six,” her son, Abe, answered.
“I still remember,” Raab said.