MUNICH — John Demjanjuk sat in a wheelchair wrapped in a light blue blanket, his eyes closed and his face pale as his trial opened Monday on charges he helped kill 27,900 Jews as a Nazi death camp guard.
Lawyers for the retired Ohio autoworker portrayed him as a victim — of the Nazis and misguided German justice. But three German doctors testified the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was fit to stand trial.
Wearing a blue baseball cap, Demjanjuk, 89, was wheeled into the packed Munich state court and did not answer when presiding judge Ralph Alt asked if he could answer basic questions about himself. His left hand twitched occasionally and his mouth was open slightly as though he was in pain.
A German doctor who examined Demjanjuk two hours before the trial began said that despite suffering from a bone marrow disease and other ailments he was able to face trial.
"He lies there, keeps his eyes closed, but understands everything," said Dr. Albrecht Stein.
Demjanjuk was deported in May from the United States and has been in custody in Munich since. He could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of training as a guard in the Trawniki SS camp, then serving in the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
The prosecution argues that after Demjanjuk, a Soviet Red Army soldier, was captured by the Germans in 1942 he volunteered to serve under the SS as a guard.
Demjanjuk has denied that, saying he spent most of the rest of the war in Nazi POW camps before joining the so-called Vlasov army made up of Soviet POWs and other anticommunists to fight with the Germans against the encroaching Soviets in the final months of World War II.
Ulrich Busch, one of Demjanjuk's two lawyers, told the court that those Ukrainians who did volunteer to serve as guards did so to save themselves, noting that millions of Soviet POWs died at the hands of the Nazis.
"Germany did not only commit the Holocaust on the Jews, but also on the Red Army prisoners of war," he said. Those who trained at "Trawniki were survivors, not perpetrators."