Alleged Nazi's trial becomes living history lesson for Israelis

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Emotional testimony this week at the trial of alleged Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk has turned the proceedings into a riveting drama. In climactic courtroom scenes, two survivors of Treblinka, a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, identified the defendant as ``Ivan the Terrible,'' the Ukrainian guard who committed atrocities against thousands of Jews. Witness Eliahu Rosenberg walked over to Mr. Demjanjuk, recoiled when offered a handshake, and later said: ``I saw those murderous eyes. That is Ivan, I say without the slightest hesitation ....''

The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, a retired Cleveland auto worker, was stripped of his American citizenship and extradited to Israel last year. He faces a possible death sentence if convicted of ``crimes against the Jewish people.''

The Demjanjuk trial is seen here as more than a mere legal proceeding. It is viewed as a living national history lesson on one of the major causes of the establishment of Israel. Observers say it is perhaps the last chance for persons in Israel and abroad to hear public first-hand testimony by survivors about the horrors of the Holocaust. Groups of school children have been brought to the courtroom and the proceedings have been witnessed by members of the Cabinet, parliament, and the armed forces.

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The trial has gradually captured the attention of growing numbers of Israelis. The skepticism and apathy expressed over the Demjanjuk case has given way to a wave of interest in the compelling stories told in the courtroom and broadcast live throughout the day on state-run Israel Radio.

But the recitations of the atrocities at Treblinka have tended to shift attention away from a more mundane legal issue which is, in fact, the crux of the trial: identification of the defendent.

Demjanjuk denies ever being at Treblinka and says he was captured by Germans while serving in the Soviet Army. The trial's outcome hinges more on identifying him as ``Ivan the terrible,'' than on relating the Ukrainian guard's atrocities, which have not been denied by the defense.

Demjanjuk's American attorney Mark O'Connor has tried with some success during cross-examination to poke holes in the testimony of witnesses by exposing contradictions and memory lapses. His success will depend on his ability to undermine the credibility of witnesses.

Demjanjuk has remained an enigma, impassively listening to a translation of survivors' tales and accusations through earphones.

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