For elderly Russian, man accused as camp guard is vivid memory


The witness has grown old and sick. He sits propped on pillows while the snow piles up outside. Recovering from a stroke, he languishes in a cramped apartment because his legs are too frail to negotiate five flights of stairs.

His name is Alexei Vaitsen. He is one of the few Jews to survive the torments of the Nazis’ Sobibor death camp and the only member of his family who lived to see the end of World War II.

His thoughts these days are hundreds of miles away, in a distant courtroom where the fate of another sick old man is being weighed. John Demjanjuk, who is accused of being a guard at Sobibor, lay on a bed before a judge in Germany last week because, he said, he was not well enough to sit upright.

In Munich, where Demjanjuk is on trial, other aged prisoners have climbed into the witness box. They described the sadism of the guards, detailed the terrors of gas chambers and talked about Jews being led obliviously to their deaths. None of them could remember Demjanjuk.

Vaitsen says he can. He doesn’t recognize the more recent photographs of the elderly man with white hair. But he swears he remembers the fresh-faced guard in an old snapshot. And after decades of silence, he seems eager to tell anybody who will listen.

“It’s him. I know him,” Vaitsen, 88, says vehemently. “I’m 100% sure.”

After all, he says, there were only a few hundred guards, and he spent more than a year living in terror of their whims.

Are his memories as solid as he thinks? If so, does his evidence help anybody? He wants to know whether, in this trial of frail bodies and dying embers of memory, his story is relevant.

Reports of Vaitsen’s account filtered out in Europe this week, and German investigators say it is up to the court to decide whether to call him as a witness. The chief investigator, Kurt Schrimm, said he could be brought in at any time. But retired investigator Thomas Walther, who led the effort that resulted in Germany prosecuting Demjanjuk, expressed skepticism that after so many years and so much publicity, Vaitsen could suddenly provide anything new.

Vaitsen and his family say he has lived with his secrets for decades.

“Everything is hidden inside him,” said his grandson, 38-year-old Alexander Vaitsen. “He wakes himself up screaming.”

There was a time when Nazi hunting carried a sense of glamour and immediacy. For decades, survivors, Israeli agents and man hunters tracked down the former tormentors. They stripped away false names, plucked criminals from balmy exiles and pushed for justice.

Now it is theater of the half-dead. The victims are old and dying; so are the perpetrators. Demjanjuk is 89 and so sick he can stand trial for only 90 minutes at a time.

As for Vaitsen, whose name is also transliterated from Russian as Weizen, he’s hardly enjoying a luxurious retirement. Almost immobilized by the recent stroke, he lives on a slim pension; his grandson is a woodworker who collects disability payments. His friend asks visitors from Moscow to bring a food packet -- sausages, cheese and fruit.

Vaitsen can barely move, but he has one specific memory of a particular young guard, a man he is certain was Demjanjuk, leading a group of prisoners into the forest. Were they going to chop wood, to be punished, to undertake some other task? He doesn’t know, but that flash of memory is there.

Demjanjuk is old, he says, but so what? Vaitsen is old too. The years have flown. Demjanjuk had a family and earned a living as an autoworker in Ohio. He was sentenced to death in Israel in 1988 after being identified as the camp guard known as “Ivan the Terrible” in the Treblinka death camp. But the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the conviction five years later on the basis of new evidence.

As for Vaitsen, even his family was unaware of his past.

He was born in Poland to a Jewish family that moved to a town now in western Ukraine.

As a young man, Vaitsen was a sprinter who also played soccer and worked in the local prosecutor’s office. After Soviet forces moved in, he was drafted as a border guard for the Red Army.

Vaitsen said his parents and sister were killed in pogroms sparked by the advance of German troops into Ukraine. German soldiers captured him and put him on a train to Sobibor in occupied Poland. Two of his brothers were also imprisoned in the extermination camp.

Most of the prisoners in the camp were Jewish, and almost all were slaughtered in chambers poisoned with tank exhaust. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands are believed to have been killed.

Demjanjuk has been charged as an accessory to 27,900 deaths at Sobibor.

Vaitsen was among the luckier ones. He was given a job in the arrival hall, where prisoners turned over their clothes, had their hair sheared off and were told they were being sent to bathhouses. From 7 in the morning until 7 at night, he sorted through clothes stripped from prisoners, repairing and refashioning them for reuse.

“All I was thinking about was how to get as far away from this hell as possible,” Vaitsen said. “My dream was just to kill all the Germans and get away. Every day started with the thought, ‘They’ll kill me today.’ ”

Vaitsen had been scraping out survival for a little more than a year when prisoners hatched a plan to kill the top officers and escape. On an October morning in 1943, they made their move. They killed nearly a dozen German officers and a smattering of Ukrainian guards; hundreds of prisoners escaped into the forest.

“For us prisoners, it was a great pleasure to kill the guards,” Vaitsen said of the uprising, almost dreamily.

“We never thought we would survive,” Vaitsen said. “God chose us and gave us life. For many years after the war, those who survived were asking ourselves how we managed to survive.”

After his escape, Vaitsen says, he joined the partisans and fought in the forests of western Ukraine. He eventually made his way to Russia, where he rejoined the Soviet army.

One of his brothers was put to death in Sobibor before the uprising. The other brother in the camp escaped during the uprising, only to be captured by Poles and tortured to death, Vaitsen said.

For decades, he kept his torments private. The Soviet Union was a place where onetime prisoners of war were often sent to the gulag, suspected of treachery.

Vaitsen married what his family calls “an ordinary Russian woman” -- meaning a non-Jew. He stayed in the military until the 1960s and then took a job as supply manager at a local energy company.

Only 20 years ago, and then just bit by bit, did he begin to tell his family the truth. The Soviet Union was slumping toward extinction, and Vaitsen grew bolder.

The anniversary of his birth was not his real birthday, he told his family. It was Oct. 14, he said, the date he escaped from a death camp.

Today, both his wife and son are dead. Vaitsen is entombed in a Soviet-era apartment complex that could be any other, anywhere in Russia: bricks the color of old sand, aged cars calcifying in the cold, chilled staircases haunted by vague smells of garbage and cigarettes.

He had his first stroke three years ago, when he was describing his Holocaust experiences at a conference.

Still, he is thinking about that trial.

“There was so much dirt and so much death,” Vaitsen said. “And he was a horrible man.”