Survivor recalls death camp before Demjanjuk trial

By Sarah Marsh

BERLIN (Reuters) - A survivor of the Nazi death camp at Sobibor, where war crimes suspect John Demjanjuk is thought to have worked, recalls guards driving Jews into gas chambers with bayonets and emerging spattered with blood.

Thomas Blatt, whose family was murdered in 1943 at the Sobibor camp in present-day Poland, wants to testify as a witness at Demjanjuk's trial in Germany, where he was extradited from the United States this week.

"A guard in Sobibor was a cog in the death machine," Blatt, 82, told Reuters in a telephone interview. "He was there at exactly the same time as me and I saw what the guards did. We were afraid of them."

Demjanjuk, who tops the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's list of 10 most-wanted suspected war criminals, is set to face charges he helped kill 29,000 Jews while working as a guard at Sobibor, in what is likely to become Germany's last major Nazi trial.

While Blatt cannot remember Demjanjuk personally, he has a vivid memory of the guards' cruelty to men, women and children.

"The guards in Sobibor were involved in taking Jews to the gas chamber and those who didn't want to go, they pushed with bayonets. I saw them come out with bloody shoes," he said.

Sobibor's gas chambers were primitive: they used motor exhaust fumes and could take between 15 and 20 minutes to kill. The SS introduced Zyklon B gas, which speeded up the killing process, later on in the war.

Munich prosecutors want Demjanjuk, born in Ukraine, tried for assisting in the murders at Sobibor extermination camp, where 250,000 Jews were killed.

Demjanjuk has denied any role in the Holocaust and a court could decide the 89-year-old is unfit to stand trial.

"GET THE TRUTH OUT"

"Important for me is not revenge but that he says what happened, so that new generations know what racism means," said Blatt, who has written two books about his experiences at the camp and his escape during a prisoner uprising in October 1943.

"I am doing all I can to get the truth out there, because some people say the Holocaust didn't happen," he said.

Blatt, who lives in the United States but has come to Germany for the trial, arrived in Sobibor in 1943 aged 15 and was chosen to work, sorting out the belongings of the Jews sent to the gas chambers.

"But my father, mother and 10-year old brother were taken to the gas chambers and then burnt," he said.

At least six million Jews died in the Holocaust.

"I worked there until the rebellion ... over 300 managed to escape but many were caught again in the woods, I was just lucky," said Blatt, adding he found shelter with various people until the end of the war, sometimes in return for money he had stashed away when sorting out clothes in the camp.

Demjanjuk was sentenced to death in Israel in 1988 after Holocaust survivors said he was the notorious guard "Ivan the Terrible" at the Treblinka camp, where 870,000 people died. Israel's Supreme Court later overturned his conviction when new evidence showed another man was likely the Treblinka guard.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Article Published: 14/05/2009