'Trawnikis': foot soldiers of the Holocaust
Experts believe between 3,000 and 5,000 men were trained at the SS Trawniki camp, where they learned how to be foot soldiers of the Holocaust.John Demjanjuk, now on trial in Germany for Nazi war crimes, was a "Trawniki,” one of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war recruited by the Germans to be the foot soldiers of the Holocaust, prosecutors claim.
Demjanjuk went on trial in Germany last week charged with assisting in 27,900 murders while a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in occupied Poland in 1943. He denies he was ever there.
Demjanjuk, an 89-year-old former American autoworker born in the Ukraine, admits to being captured by the Germans in 1942 while serving with the Red Army during Hitler's doomed attempt to crush Stalin's Soviet Union in World War II.
Millions of Soviet prisoners of war died in captivity, either murdered by the Germans or from cold and hunger -- but Demjanjuk was allegedly offered a way out.
While a prisoner, prosecutors say, he was recruited to work as a guard and transferred to the special SS Trawniki training camp in southeastern Poland before being moved to Sobibor.
Their case rests on a green SS identity card issued at Trawniki -- number 1393 -- of a certain Ukrainian called Ivan Demjanjuk with a black-and-white photograph that prosecutors say is the defendant as a young man.
And the smoking gun, according to the prosecution, is a mention on the card of a transfer from Trawniki to Sobibor in the spring of 1943. Demjanjuk's lawyers say it is a fake and deny he was either at Trawniki or Sobibor.
Most were Ukrainians, from the Baltic states, Poles or so-called Volga Germans, ethnic Germans who had been living in Russia for centuries.
They were known as "Trawnikis,” "Hiwis" (shorthand for "Hilfswilliger" or "someone willing to help"), or "Askaris" (the name given to black troops serving with the German Imperial army in southwest Africa in the early 1900s).
They worked as camp guards, helping to herd men, women and children into the gas chambers, or served as auxiliary police forces for SS stormtroopers, rounding up Jews or fighting partisans in occupied eastern Europe.
"Some were volunteers but we don't know if they all were," Kuehl believes. "What we know is that Soviet prisoners were asked to volunteer for Trawniki and were assured they would not have to fight the Red Army."
In Trawniki, they received basic military training, were treated like soldiers -- and unlike their brethren still in POW camps were given regular meals.
"In the evening they were allowed to leave the camp but were subject to the death penalty if they deserted," he added.
Many "Trawnikis" took part in the mass shooting of Jews in villages and towns, in the brutal crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, or served as paramilitary police or guards.
Six German SS officers at Trawniki, including camp commander Karl Streibel, were found not guilty at a trial in Hamburg in 1977 after they claimed they didn't know what their recruits were being trained for, Kuehl added.
No one knows how many Trawnikis survived the war, or how many were put on trial in the Soviet Union. In many cases they were shot.