Article — From the March 2012 issue

Ivan the Recumbent, or Demjanjuk in Munich

Enduring the “last great Nazi war-crimes trial”

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In Gerichtssaal 101 the chatter dies down as a back door opens. Flanked by two medical orderlies and a court-appointed doctor, Demjanjuk is maneuvered into the courtroom in a wheelchair. A sky-blue blanket is drawn to his chin, a blue baseball cap covers his brow. Cameras flash. It is not a sight to dignify jurisprudence: a helpless old man scowling before an onslaught of publicity. More shocking still is his re-entry into the courtroom a few hours later, after the midday break. Gone is the wheelchair, and in its place is an ambulance gurney. Demjanjuk lies flat on this back, a blanket drawn—so it appears from my vantage point—over his head.

Journalists viewing this apparition scribble in their notebooks as a lawyer representing relatives of persons murdered at Sobibor jumps to his feet and gestures at the gurney. “Excuse me, I’d like to know why he’s lying like that.”

A team of three doctors briefly confer, then one announces that the defendant has said he’s uncomfortable sitting.

“If the accused claims sitting is no longer possible, would it be possible at least to raise him?” the lawyer asks.

The doctor confers with Demjanjuk, who appears to reject the suggestion.

This brings Cornelius Nestler, a professor of criminal law and the lead lawyer for the victims’ families, to his feet. Nestler is keenly aware that this trial is more than a colloquy over evidence and law; it is a competition over what images will be transmitted around the world. “The picture this projects is most disconcerting.”

Eventually a compromise is reached: the defendant may remain on the gurney but propped at a 45-­degree angle. For the rest of this first day of what will turn out to be a punishingly lengthy proceeding, Demjanjuk puts on a grotesque pantomime, a performance that lends new meaning to the term “show trial.” His mouth opens in a silent grimace; he grips his forehead; he struggles to moisten parched lips. Journalists exchange glances. The consensus is that he is faking it; the defense is overplaying the pity card.

In the coming weeks, Demjanjuk will remain inert, baseball cap pulled low over his brow, eyes hidden behind dark glasses. But the frowns of pain, the silent moans, will cease. Someone, it seems, has given him the message to tone it down.

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s the James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst College. His most recent book, <em>The Vices</em> (Other Press), was a finalist for the 2011 National Jewish Book Award. John Demjanjuk <a href="http://www.nytimes.

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