MUNICH — Rudolf Salomon Cortissos sobbed as he told a Munich court about the letter his mother had written on May 17, 1943 — four days before she was gassed in the Nazis’ Sobibor death camp with some 2,300 other Dutch Jews.
Cortissos testified on Tuesday, the second day in a German court for John Demjanjuk, the retired Ohio autoworker being tried on charges of being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews in the Sobibor camp, including Cortissos’ mother Emmy.
Sitting only feet away from Demjanjuk, Cortissos said he found her letter after his father died in 1959.
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His mother had tossed it from the train that was taking her from Holland before it crossed the German border, Cortissos testified. The family had been in hiding, but she had been picked up in a sweep after going outside.
In neat handwriting, on a single piece of yellowed paper folded into quarters, Cortissos’ mother told the family she was being sent east to work — a lie propagated by the Nazis so people would be less likely to resist.
“I promise you I will be tough and I will definitely survive,” she wrote in what turned out to be her final words to her family. She signed off: “Hope to see you again soon. Bye bye. Many kisses.”
The 89-year-old Demjanjuk was deported from the United States in May to stand trial in Germany. He rejects the charges, saying he has been mistaken for someone else.
Demjanjuk — who suffers from several medical problems — was wheeled in to the Munich state court on a gurney Tuesday, slightly propped up lying on his back. He arrived much the same way on Monday, the day the trial began.
A blanket covered his legs and his leather jacket was zipped up to his neck. As Cortissos told his story, Demjanjuk kept a blue baseball cap low over his face and had no visible reaction.
Cortissos is one of about 40 victims’ relatives who have joined the trial as co-plaintiffs, which is allowed under the German legal system. He said he regretted that his testimony did not appear to affect Demjanjuk.
“I had hoped we would have had kind of an eye contact, but we didn’t,” the 70-year-old told The Associated Press. “So far, it’s an old man — no emotional feelings, the way he is.”
Cortissos was one of five co-plaintiffs who made statements Tuesday.
Prior to that, prosecutors accused Demjanjuk of playing an active role in the Nazis’ machinery of destruction and of being a willing follower of Hitler’s racist ideology as they read their indictment aloud.
Demjanjuk showed little reaction as the 10-page indictment was read, but put his left hand to his brow as prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz detailed how Jews were stripped of their belongings and clothes, then led naked into the gas chambers of Sobibor.
The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk maintains he was a Soviet soldier captured by the Germans, and spent most of the rest of the war in prison camps.
But Lutz told the five-judge panel he would seek to prove that Demjanjuk volunteered to serve the Nazis once he had been captured, and that he was a willing participant in the Holocaust.
Lutz told the court that Demjanjuk learned how to be a guard at the SS training camp at Trawniki and was then posted to the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland in March 1943.
“As a guard, he took part in all the various parts of the extermination process after the deportation trains arrived,” Lutz said, reading the indictment.
Lutz said Demjanjuk could have deserted, but chose to stay in the camp.
“He willingly participated in the killing of the Jews because he wanted them dead for his own racist ideological reasons,” Lutz said.
Presiding Judge Ralph Alt asked Demjanjuk if he wanted to respond to the indictment but Busch said Demjanjuk would make no comment.
Demjanjuk’s defense attorney Ulrich Busch rejected the allegations.
“There is absolutely no evidence for that — it is purely the prosecutors’ fantasy,” Busch told The AP after the court session.
In a comment e-mailed from Ohio, Demjanjuk’s son said the prosecution had nothing to back up the allegations in the indictment.
“The prosecution is building a house of cards with a hurricane coming,” John Demjanjuk Jr. said. “There is not a scintilla of evidence indicating my father ever had any such ideology nor that he ever harmed a single human being.”
During a short break after the indictment was read, a doctor checked Demjanjuk, who seemed more animated than during the proceedings. He opened his eyes, talked with those around him and took a drink of water.
In the afternoon, however, after about an hour of the co-plaintiffs’ testimony, Demjanjuk complained of pain and the doctor recommended that the trial adjourn for the day.
Demjanjuk’s lawyers have previously said the prosecution has no witnesses who remember him from Sobibor and that its other evidence is weak. They suggest Demjanjuk is a victim of mistaken identity — something that has happened before.
In the 1980s, Demjanjuk was extradited by the U.S. for trial in Israel on charges that he was the notoriously brutal guard at Treblinka who earned the moniker “Ivan the Terrible.”
Demjanjuk was convicted in 1988 of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and spent seven years in prison until Israel’s Supreme Court in 1993 overturned the conviction. It ruled that another person, not Demjanjuk, was “Ivan the Terrible.”
“An indictment is only as good as the evidence behind it, as we know from Israeli trial,” Demjanjuk Jr. said.
Busch filed a motion Tuesday for the case to be thrown out, arguing it had been illegal to deport Demjanjuk from the U.S. instead of extradite him, and that the Sobibor charges were addressed in the Israel trial so the current process constitutes double jeopardy — trying a person twice for the same crime.
Alt said he would rule later on the motion, but has previously rejected several similar pretrial motions by Busch.
The trial resumes Wednesday, and court sessions are scheduled through next May.
If convicted, Demjanjuk faces a possible 15 years in prison — although he could be given credit in sentencing for some or all of the time he spent behind bars in Israel.
Even if acquitted, Demjanjuk — who has been stripped of his U.S. citizenship — likely will have to remain in Germany.