BERLIN – A German prosecutor has opened a murder investigation against a key witness in John Demjanjuk's trial on allegations the man may have been involved in mass killings at the Nazis' Treblinka concentration camp.
Munich prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz told The Associated Press on Friday the probe is based on statements from former guards that Alex Nagorny, 94, took part in shootings at the camp in occupied Poland in 1941-42.
In one statement obtained by the AP, former guard Ivan Knysh told Soviet authorities in 1948 that he remembered Nagorny from Treblinka, and that "from his statements to me I know that he participated in a shooting of 3,000 prisoners."
Lutz said he is waiting on information from Ukraine to determine whether any of the witnesses are still alive to be cross-examined about their original statements before moving ahead with possible charges.
Reached by telephone at his home in Bavaria, Nagorny said he did not understand what he was being asked and passed the phone to his wife, Maria.
"They should leave him in peace," she said. "He could be in the graveyard tomorrow; he's old."
Like Demjanjuk, Nagorny is a Ukrainian who served as a soldier in the Red Army and was taken prisoner by the Germans.
Prosecutors allege that Demjanjuk agreed to serve the Germans and was trained at the Trawniki SS camp before being sent to work as a camp guard at Sobibor. The 90-year-old Demjanjuk, who is standing trial on 28,060 counts of accessory to murder, denies ever having served the Nazis in any capacity.
Nagorny, however, admits being trained at Trawniki and serving as a guard in the Nazi camp system.
In February last year, Nagorny testified that he served with Demjanjuk at the Flossenbuerg concentration camp in Bavaria, telling the court that he lived with Demjanjuk in a barracks in Flossenbuerg and then shared an apartment with him in Landshut, Germany, after the war.
But when asked to identify Demjanjuk in the courtroom then, he could not.
Nagorny walked over to the bed where Demjanjuk lay and said quickly: "That's definitely not him — no resemblance."
When asked about Treblinka, Nagorny denied being at the camp.
"I have heard of Treblinka," he told the court. "Why, I don't know."
The statements implicating Nagorny have been known for some time, but there were three different former guards named Nagorny and it was not immediately clear whether the man who testified in the Demjanjuk trial was the same who allegedly served in Treblinka.
But the judge who investigated for the special German prosecutor's office responsible for Nazi war-crimes probes told the AP she had determined he was the correct suspect.
"I'm convinced we are talking about the same person," Judge Kirsten Goetze said.
Demjanjuk's trial broke new legal ground in Germany, with prosecutors for the first time charging a suspect with accessory to murder based on the theory that if someone acted as a guard in a death camp, like Sobibor, they had to be part of the mass-execution process — even with no evidence of participation in a specific killing.
In the case of Nagorny, however, he is accused of being a guard at Treblinka I, a concentration camp whose prisoners were used as slave laborers to build Treblinka II, the notorious death camp in which some 800,000 to 1 million Jews were killed in about a year.
That is why prosecutors are concentrating on the statements indicating his involvement in shootings.
"In a concentration camp there has to be evidence of participation in a specific crime," Lutz said.
But Cornelius Nestler, an attorney representing the families of Sobibor victims who have joined the Demjanjuk trial as co-plaintiffs, said the Nagorny case — with his courtroom admission that he served as a Flossenbuerg guard — provides an opportunity for German prosecutors to widen the precedent set with the Demjanjuk indictment.
"If people are constantly dying from the conditions, if the guard is aware that happens, then it's accessory," he said in a telephone interview from Florida.