Germany - The trial of John Demjanjuk, an 89-year-old former Nazi camp guard, started on Monday on charges of helping to force 27,900 Jews into gas chambers at Sobibor death camp in 1943.
Demjanjuk, a retired U.S. carworker, was pushed in a wheelchair before the court in Munich at what is likely to be Germany's last major trial from the Nazi era. Wearing a cap and in a reclined position, he was draped in a light-blue blanket.
German state prosecutors believe Demjanjuk, who was top of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's list of most-wanted war criminals, assisted in killings at the Sobibor death camp, in what is now Poland, where at least 250,000 Jews were murdered.
Jewish groups and victims' families say it is never too late for justice to be done and that the case is symbolic.
I didn't come to take revenge on Demjanjuk. I came to explain what it was like in Sobibor, said plaintiff Thomas Blatt, whose family was killed at the camp in 1943 and who at 15 was ordered to sort out belongings of Jews sent to be gassed.
A guard in another place, in a jail, or in a concentration camp was guarding so that prisoners couldn't escape, the 82-year-old said. But a guard in a death factory, an extermination camp was a murderer. He helped murder people.
Demjanjuk, who was born in Ukraine and fought in the Red Army before being captured by the Nazis and recruited as a camp guard, was extradited in May from the United States.
He emigrated to the United States in 1951, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1958, and worked in the auto industry.
He denies he was involved in the Holocaust and his family insists he is too frail to stand trail.
Demjanjuk's son said his father had been in hospital for five days in the last week to undergo tests and had a blood transfusion due to a bone marrow disease. They are forcing the trial to go forward regardless of my father's condition, John Demjanjuk Jr told Reuters in a statement.
LIFE BEHIND BARS?
Due to his weak condition, hearings will be restricted to two 90-minute sessions a day. His lawyer, Guenther Maull, said he was in pain and suffered from periods of mental absence. At his appearance, he closed his eyes and mumbled to himself.
The trial is expected to last until May and sessions have been scheduled for three days from Monday for this week. More than 200 journalists have been accredited to cover the trial.
If all goes to plan, the prosecution will read the charges on Monday and Demjanjuk, who could be sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars, will have the chance to respond. Prosecutors plan to show the court documents, including an identity card, which they say prove he was at Sobibor and they will call about 20 witnesses.
Mr Blatt is not doing this out of revenge or to be compensated, said his lawyer Stefan Schuenemann, adding:
Mr Blatt thinks that after such a long time it is too late for atonement. Mr Blatt doesn't really care about Demjanjuk's fate. It is important for him that the story of Sobibor ... is today given a platform so that he can describe the terrible murders that were carried out in this extermination camp 66 years ago.
While the case has attracted enormous global interest, many Germans would prefer to draw a line under the Nazi past and focus on a Germany's new-found role on the world stage.
Although he has acknowledged being at other camps, Demjanjuk has denied he was in Sobibor, which prosecutors say was run by 20-30 Nazi SS members and up to 150 former Soviet war prisoners.
Demjanjuk was extradited from the United States to Israel in 1986, accused of being Ivan the Terrible, a notoriously sadistic guard at the Treblinka death camp. He was sentenced to death in 1988 but his conviction was overturned when new evidence showed another man was probably Ivan.
In the Sobibor gas chambers, Jews died in 20 to 30 minutes after inhaling a toxic mix of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, say prosecutors, who argue that Demjanjuk was at the camp for about six months in 1943.