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Former Nazi Lieutenant Goes on Trial, Charged in Thousands of Jewish Deaths

June 26, 1991

STUTTGART, Germany (AP) _ Josef Schwammberger, a labor camp commander in Nazi-occupied Poland accused in more than 3,000 murders, went on trial today in the first such war-crimes proceeding in unified Germany.

The 79-year-old Schwammberger is charged with murdering or helping to murder 3,377 people, 50 by his own hand. Most of the victims were Jews. He is also accused of sending thousands of Polish Jews to Auschwitz.

About 20 neo-Nazis in the spectators’ section of the courtroom laughed loudly when Chief Judge Herbert Luippold said in opening comments that Schwammberger would receive an ″absolutely fair trial.″ They quieted down when the judge threatened to eject them for disorderly conduct.

Schwammberger, who hid for 40 years in Argentina, had been on the most- wanted war criminals list of famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who attended the opening session today.

″He committed enormous crimes, crimes that cannot be punished. His sentence should be 30 times life for every murder he committed,″ Wiesenthal told reporters outside the courtroom. ″He murdered out of greed, he killed for enrichment. He killed for pleasure.″

As Wiesenthal gave an interview after the first trial session, several neo- Nazis gathered.

″Jew, you are lying,″ shouted a tall, young man. ″We’ll put you on trial here in Germany.″

″They have learned nothing,″ Wiesenthal said, upset but speaking calmly. ″They are not representative of the German youth.″

If convicted, Schwammberger could be sentenced to life in prison.

During the war, the Nazi SS lieutenant commanded slave labor camps at several locations, including Przemysl and Mielec, where thousands of inmates, mostly Jews, were interned and died.

Schwammberger, a short, balding man with grey hair and bushy eyebrows, entered the court with difficulty, holding onto tables as he approached the defendant’s chair.

Prosecutor Kurt Schrimm then read the charges: 12 counts of murder involving at least 43 people and 40 counts of accessory to murder involving 3,374 people.

Luippold concentrated on Schwammberger’s youth and his reasons for joining the Nazi Party.

Schwammberger replied slowly in broken sentences, often pausing. Luippold frequently referred to court files to refresh his memory.

Justice officials say Schwammberger has never denied working at the camps. But they say he claimed to have shot only one prisoner.

Survivors, however, have described how he set his dog on inmates, pulled out their gold teeth with pliers and robbed his Jewish victims of gold and jewelry before killing them.

″He had his storm troopers. He had his dog, who ripped up pieces of flesh and was worse than the bullets,″ Joseph Kostman, one of only 105 survivors from Przemysl’s prewar Jewish community of 28,000, told one pre-trial hearing in Miami. ″If anyone looked at Schwammberger, they were dead.″

Trial officials collected depositions from witnesses abroad and invited about 100 to testify, although some cannot attend because of age or poor health.

Schwammberger himself is in frail health, suffering from heart problems, and will be able to attend only two-hour trial sessions, twice a day, Stuttgart Regional Court officials said. His trial is expected to last several months.

A native of Austria, Schwammberger was born Feb. 14, 1912, in Brixen, south Tirol. He joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and became a member of the SS four years later.

He was arrested in Innsbruck, in the French-occupied zone of Austria, on July 20, 1945 but he escaped with two other prisoners from a POW camp in January 1948, surfacing a year later in Argentina.

In questioning before his escape, Schwammberger admitted executing ″about 35 Jews,″ according to Austrian police files.

The files also show Schwammberger admitted that sacks of gold and jewelry found in his possession had come from Jewish inmates.

In testimony, witnesses describe Schwammberger as a brutal, sadistic man who forced his Jewish victims to strip naked before robbing them of valuables and shooting them.

In one statement that bears what appears to be his signature, Schwammberger said he had been ordered to execute Jewish inmates who had escaped from Przemysl and been recaptured.

″From a distance of about 10 centimeters (4 inches) I aimed the pistol at the nape and pulled. If the victim still gave signs of life, I shot him again in the temple,″ Schwammberger told interrogators, according to the files.

Although long-sought by Wiesenthal, Schwammberger lived in Argentina under his own name and obtained citizenship in 1965. For years, he worked in a petrochemical plant near La Plata, 30 miles south of Buenos Aires.

West German authorities issued an arrest warrant for Schwammberger in 1963, and asked for his extradition in 1972.

He was arrested in Argentina in November 1987 and was extradited in May 1990.

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