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Death camp victim’s seven decade wait for justice

Published on 30/11/2009

Amstelveen — Jules Schelvis spent just a few hours at the Sobibor Nazi death camp in June 1943 before a moment’s hesitation by an SS guard spared his life.

His young bride was not so lucky. And 66 years later Schelvis says he never stopped hoping for justice for the deaths of his 20-year-old wife Rachel and more than 30 other family members at the camp where John Demjanjuk allegedly worked as a guard.

"Justice is the word that turns in my head constantly, even after all these years," Schelvis told AFP in an interview ahead of the trial of Demjanjuk in Munich from Monday.

Schelvis, who lives in the Dutch city of Amstelveen, is a witness and one of more than 30 plaintiffs in the case in which Demjanjuk faces 27,900 charges of assisting in the murder of Jews at Sobibor between March and September 1943.

He said he was arrested with his wife of 18 months at home in Amsterdam in June 1943.

With some 3,000 other Jews, they were transported in 50 cattle trucks to the concentration camp in Poland. After a four-day journey, they arrived at Sobibor to be welcomed by Ukrainian guards who took their orders from the SS.

"They had weapons and whips and had to make sure that no one escapes," Schelvis recalled.

Later, an SS officer separated the women from the men. "All of a sudden I didn’t see her any more, she had disappeared in a different direction … my wife," he recounted emotionally.

An SS officer chose 80 men from the group, "men who could work", said Schelvis. He was not among them. "They thought that I was too young. I was 22 years old and I looked younger than my age."

He was put instead with his father-in-law and his wife’s 14-year-old brother.

"They told us that we were dirty from the journey, that we almost certainly had lice, and that we must take a shower," Schelvis said. "People started getting undressed."

He asked an SS officer standing nearby to be allowed to join another brother-in-law in the group of 80 chosen as workmen.

"He looked at me and asked himself: shall I send him to the gas chamber or to work? He asked my age and if I was in good health, and then told me to go. It was a thin line between life and death, and I didn’t know it then."

Schelvis left Sobibor by train with the rest of forced workers and spent the next two years in labour and concentration camps in Germany and Poland.

His wife Rachel and several other relatives died in the Sobibor gas chambers the day he left.

Schelvis cannot recall having seen the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, who denies having been at Sobibor.

"If Demjanjuk was there, maybe I saw him. I did not look them (the guards) in the eye."

Upon his release in Germany, by French troops on April 8, 1945, Schelvis said he immediately wrote his story on the back of 50 pages of German army forms while it was still fresh in his mind.

"I didn’t want anybody to tell me later: ‘This is all good and well but you wrote it 20 years after the fact."

He returned to live in Amsterdam where he remarried in 1946 and became the manager of a socialist daily newspaper.

Schelvis’ autobiography was published in 1981, followed by an historical work on the Sobibor camp.

He leaves for Munich on Sunday to attend the first three days of the trial. He will testify as a witness later in the proceedings.

"What I experienced, that is what I will tell the judges," he said, adding that Demjanjuk’s age should be no extenuating fact.

"My grandfather, who was killed at Sobibor, was also an old man but nobody said "oh, he’s an old man: he doesn’t need to go to Sobibor. Why should Demjanjuk be spared?"