Berlin - New Witness in Demjanjuk Case, Served With Him in Concentration Camp
Berlin - The thin, old man with gray wisps of hair talks slowly, but what he has to say could ruin John Demjanjuk’s defense at his trial in Germany.
Alexander Nagorny, a former Nazi guard, is the key witness against the 89-year-old Demjanjuk in a trial that could begin this summer or fall, depending on Demjanjuk’s health.
Authorities in Germany tracked down Nagorny in that country after a months-long investigation. He is 92 and offers new evidence—some of the first in years—that attacks Demjanjuk’s longstanding defense that he was a prisoner of war, not a Nazi guard.
Nagorny has told German authorities that he worked with Demjanjuk at a concentration camp in Flossenburg, Germany, and lived with him after the war in Landshut, a Bavarian city near Munich, said Guenther Maull, Demjanjuk’s attorney in Germany.
In a closed-door hearing, Nagorny testified to German officials in February about his relationship with Demjanjuk, Maull said. Even if Nagorny were to become too ill to take the stand, his testimony at the February hearing would be offered at a trial. Maull cross-examined Nagorny during the hearing.
Nagorny, a Ukrainian, also told German public television network ZDF that he knew Demjanjuk well and recognized him from a 1940s photo. The network declined to identify him. It called him “Alex N.” on its Web site and used the pseudonym “Dimitri” in an on-air interview.
“Now there is a witness,” ZDF said in a translated account of a story on its Web site. “Alex N. knows him well. He lived with him after the war in a room in Landshut.”
In a television broadcast May 17, a reporter showed Nagorny a picture of Demjanjuk in a guard’s uniform: “This is Ivan, absolutely. I recognize him. ... I’m saying what I saw. We slept in the same room.”
In a case that will be built primarily on documents, Nagorny’s testimony could provide rare insight into Demjanjuk’s years after the war. Or, if Demjanjuk’s lawyers are correct, it could offer another example of how memories can fade after 63 years.
Maull criticized Nagorny as a witness, saying that he struggles to consistently tell the same story after repeated questioning, which Maull said he learned from the February hearing.
“He is a very old man who doesn’t realize that he contradicts himself,” Maull said in a phone interview.
In an e-mail, John Demjanjuk Jr. said: “I have plenty I could say about Nagorny.” But he refused, citing what he called a biased, false editorial in The Plain Dealer about his father.
Several attempts to contact Nagorny in Germany were unsuccessful. It is unclear if he has ever faced trial for his service as a camp guard. He served at the Trawniki guard camp and at Flossenburg, according to U.S. court records.
A spokesman for the German prosecutors declined to comment.
Maull also said he believes Nagorny’s role as a witness is minimal, as it only places Demjanjuk at Flossenburg, not at the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland where Demjanjuk is accused of committing the crimes.
But even if Nagorny can only testify that Demjanjuk was in Flossenburg, it corroborates a much larger picture of Demjanjuk’s Nazi past, records show.
Nagorny’s name, along with those of hundreds of other guards, has been in documents about Demjanjuk for decades. But only in recent months have German and American officials connected him to Demjanjuk through post-war city registries and Nazi records. Authorities in the two countries worked together, since the United States had spent years working on the Demjanjuk case.
Documents filed in U.S. District Court in Cleveland in 2001 show the two men were listed as serving at Flossenburg in 1944. The camp held inmates who worked for long hours with little food. Unlike Sobibor, it was not a death camp.
A duty roster from the camp shows Nagorny was assigned to carry a rifle and guard inmates as they worked on a water-supply system Oct. 4. On the same day, a young guard named Demjanjuk carried a rifle as inmates built a bunker.
Next to the men’s names on the roster are their guard numbers, a tracking device the Nazis used to help identify guards who first served in the Trawniki guard camp. Nagorny’s number was 477; Demjanjuk’s 1393.
Though it is clear that Nagorny’s statements only place Demjanjuk at Flossenburg, Demjanjuk’s ID number also puts him at the Majdanek concentration camp in January 1943 and Sobibor two months later, according to federal court records filed in Cleveland.
In 2002, U.S. District Judge Paul Matia ruled that the ID number 1393 was Demjanjuk’s and found that he had served in those concentration camps. Matia then stripped Demjanjuk of his citizenship, the initial ruling that led to his deportation in May.
Demjanjuk has steadfastly denied that he is the person linked to ID No. 1393. His attorneys have said that it is possible that there was a Demjanjuk who was guard No. 1393, but it is not the man who lived in Seven Hills. At one point, they said, Demjanjuk’s identity was stolen by his cousin.
Nagorny’s testimony attacks that defense. He told authorities that he and Demjanjuk shared an apartment or room when Demjanjuk worked for the U.S. Army as a driver in Landshut, Maull said.
Demjanjuk’s own words verify part of this. In his application for displaced-persons camps in the late 1940s, Demjanjuk said he worked from May 1945 to 1947 in Landshut, occasionally employed by the U.S. Army.
Demjanjuk has maintained that he was serving in the Red Army when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. The Germans captured him and sent him to various prisoner-of-war camps before he lived in displaced-persons camps.
U.S. judges have ruled that once Demjanjuk was captured, he went to work for the Nazis as a guard.
Legal experts say witness testimony in decades-old cases can be problematic because of the passing of time, and previous witnesses from concentration camps have been discredited. Nagorny would be the first witness to personally know Demjanjuk.
In the late 1980s, Israeli prosecutors relied on eyewitness testimony to prove that Demjanjuk was “Ivan the Terrible,” the sadistic guard who terrorized Jews at the Treblinka death camp.
The witnesses were proven wrong, only after Demjanjuk was sentenced to death. He spent several years on death row before the Israeli Supreme Court cleared him.
After Demjanjuk returned to Seven Hills, the U.S. Justice Department claimed that he had lied about his service in Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenburg. In that case, filed in Cleveland, prosecutors relied on wartime documents, including the ID number on his guard pass. It was a key piece of information in getting Demjanjuk deported.
Unlike the witnesses at the concentration camps, Nagorny’s testimony would come from a person who says he not only knew Demjanjuk from the camps but lived with him.
Plain Dealer Reporter Evelyn Theiss and Edward Hayme, a professor of modern languages at Cleveland State University, assisted in the translation of items associated with this story.
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