The Trial of John Demjanjuk

When I feel like moaning about having builders in or having to go out to get a prescription from the chemists I should think of that trial going on in Germany this week where an old man called John Demjanjuk is on trial accused of helping to murder 27,900 Jews at the infamous Sobibor extermination camp.


One of the witnesses produced a letter in court yesterday which was all that he had to remember his mother Emmy Cortissos.

Now I don’t know how this case will end or whether that old man is guilty. He is being wheeled into court on a hospital gurney because, apparently he is too ill to come in unaided and he certainly cuts a pathetic figure challenging us all to think through the wisdom in mounting such a trial.

John Demjanjuk is 89 years old and his defence council is playing up his frailty for all it is worth and also claiming that he too is a victim in this case. He was arrested in America but he came originally from the Ukraine where, it is alleged, he was coerced into his role as an extermination camp guard.


I am not qualified to sit in judgement on the man but cleverer minds than mine are on the case so I will let that pass.

If he was guilty though, I see no reason for using his age or his illness as a reason for waving judgement.

The charges are of such momentous proportions that no one can ever be exhonerated if proven guilty.

What did come out in court yesterday though was the unbearably poignant case of Mrs. Cortissos.

Mrs Cortissos, a Jewish woman from Amsterdam, had gone out to pick up an asthma prescription when she was unfortunate enough to walk straight into a troop of German soldiers who were rounding up any Jew that they could find.


She, along with 2500 others from the streets of Amsterdam that week, was held in a transit camp before being herded onto a transportation train to Sobibor camp in Poland, three days away.


She would have disappeared without a trace if she hadn’t managed to throw a letter out of the train and it was this pathetic document that was produced in court yesterday.

“17 May 1943

Dear Geert,

It is Monday evening and we’re ready to board the train. I promise you I will be tough. I will definitely survive. There is nothing that can be done about this. Take care of my husband, my son. I hope to see you soon. Give Annie my love and remember to congratulate her on her birthday. Greetings to everybody that I know. Thanks a lot for everything. Hope to see you again, many kisses, Emmy.”

I know it has become an every day remark to say that we should never forget the horror of those days when the Nazis committed one of the worst crimes in the history of “civilization” but it is an every day remark because it needs to be said.

Mrs. Cortissos, of course, never did see her friends and family again. She died in the gas chambers of Sobibor.


If John Demjanjuk was one of the guards who took part in this abomination then nothing should be put in the way of his conviction.

Whatever truths are discovered in this trial there is no question about the truth that some try to deny. The extermination camps were real places

and the victims were real people so lets never get comfortable about that thought.

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