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Israel's Nazi trial: mixed response. Israeli public no longer seems as ready to relive past

By Joel GreenbergSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 18, 1987



Jerusalem

The trial of accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk is only the second war crime hearing in Israel's history. But it is hardly the talk of the town. The opening court sessions this week have lacked the emotion-packed drama of Israel's 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was kidnapped and brought to Israel, tried, and executed for directing the mass killing of European Jews in World War II.

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Mr. Demjanjuk, a retired auto mechanic extradited from the United States to Israel last year, has not dominated his trial as did Eichmann. Demjanjuk was strangely jovial at the opening hearing, waving to the courtroom audience.

The Demjanjuk case has failed to capture the imagination of the Israeli public, which seems preoccupied with concerns of daily life. Though the courtroom was packed during the trial's opening session Monday, there was significantly less attendence yesterday.

Israelis no longer seem as ready as before to relive the horrors of the Holocaust. A teacher outside the court building said she was not sure that trying another Nazi was the proper way to commemorate the Holocaust. Another woman said she believed Israel should expend its energy on building its future, not on dredging up horrors from its people's past. High-school students polled at random opposed imposing the death penalty on Demjanjuk if he was found guilty.

Nevertheless, the overpowering drive in Israel to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust and bring its perpetrators to justice dictated that the Demjanjuk trial be held publicly. The opening hearing was broadcast live on Israel Radio. Reports on the trial led TV and radio broadcasts and were on the front pages of newspapers. Israel's educational television is filming the trial's first week and the education minister has requested funding to film the entire trial. For many Israelis the trial is a necessary reminder and a living lesson, especially to younger Israelis. It also seems to be a catharsis for Holocaust survivors, some of whom wept at Monday's hearing.

The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk has been charged with crimes against the Jewish people. Under Israeli law, he faces the death sentence. Demjanjuk is charged with operating gas chambers at the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland, torturing and shooting inmates at the camp where he was known as ``Ivan the Terrible.''

Demjanjuk maintains he is the victim of mistaken identity. He was, he says, taken prisoner by the Germans while in the Soviet Army and was never in Treblinka. The Israeli state prosecution says it has witnesses who will identify Demjanjuk as ``Ivan the Terrible.''

Monday's session was businesslike, dominated by preliminary arguments raised by Demjanjuk's American attorney and his Israeli partner. But a tearful outburst by one survivor in the audience, who said he saw his family strangled at Treblinka, was perhaps a sign of emotional responses yet to come. As witnesses testify, layers of time that have blurred memory may roll back.

``We are only at the beginning,'' said Haim Guri, a well-known Israeli author.