In the corridor outside court room 111 here early last week, a small group of West German high school students approached an elderly Polish woman and handed her some flowers.
"It was very touching," the woman's lawyer said. Moments earlier, the woman had told a court room, largerly empty except for the visiting school class, how Nazi guards at the Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, Poland, had beaten and forced hundreds of Jewish children out of their barracks and into the gas chambers in the summer of 1943.
Soon, another scene took place in the same corridor.
One of the former guards now on trial, Hildegard Laechert, 57, who was called "bloody Birgitta" by the inmates, complained to reporters that she was being treated unfairly.
"Why don't they charge the Americans who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima with murder too," she demanded.
The events unfolding in the state court here are nothing new. In fact, they are part of what is becoming the longest and most legally frustrating - and probably the last - mass trial of accused Nazi war criminals in the post-war era.
The West German statute of limitations on war crimes takes effect next year, after which no new cases can be started. The Majdanek trial is thus likely to be the last of the big ones.
Some 250,000 people, mostly Jews, were exterminated at the Majdanek "death factory" in four wartime years and now the trial of nine men and five women guards and officials charged with complicity in many of those deaths will probably take the same amount of time.
The trial began here in November 1975, and is now into its third year. Lawyers estimate it may take another year and half to complete, a span that would push it beyond even the Nuremberg war crime trials that ran from 1945 to 1949.
The duration and pace of the current proceedings, however, have set off a new complex of emotions and legal questions.
Defense lawyers have intimidated witnesses to events of 35 years ago to the point where it is often hard to tell who is on trial. The presiding judge, while experienced, is viewed by manly lawyers as not as skilled on argumentation as the best of the defense lawyers. There is a serious question of whether any of the accused - most of whom are now in their 60s - will ever see the inside of a jail, since appeals are certain if they are convicted.
"What's going on in Duesseldorf," said Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in a telephone intereview, "is a circus."
Wiesenthal, who lives in Vienna, was instrumental in tracking down one of the best known defendants here - Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, 59, an Austrian-born woman who migrated to Canada in 1958, married an American and settled in New York City, in 1963, where Wiesenthal found her and began a nine-year battle with American authorities to get her extradited.
The defense lawyers, Wiensenthal claims, 'have learned from the Bander-Meinhof lawyers the method for postponing everything," a reference to the delaying techniques used to defend West German terrorist gang members here in recent years.
"A lawyers needs to defend his clients but not to abuse people," he says. "The judge has no experience with such lawyers and can't stop it. Then lawyers are talking to witnesses as though they were criminals. After a Polish lady told the court how defendants ordered to bring the gas, defense lawyers asked the judge to charge her as an accomplice.
Lawyers have sought to impugn witnesses, who are often camp survivors, by showing that they can't recall details such as the color of a truck that allegedly carted away inmates to the gas chamgers 35 years ago. The point is crucial to the defense: that courts can no longer ascertain the truth about events that happened so long ago and that the Nazi era, once and for all, should be put behind.
A noted historian, Wolfgang Scheffler, who is not Jewish was asked to prove he was "Arayan" by the defense, who sought to stop his testimony on the grounds that he studied under professors who were Jewish.
"The court will go to Israel in March because witnesses don't want to come here because lawyers change them into defendants," Wiesenthal said.
The delays at Duesseldorf have troubled some Israelis, Poles and Americans. Some say privately they believe the whole thing is a conspiracy to let this last trial fade away and also put an end to the era.
The West German newspapers, except for coverage when the trial opened, rarely report on the situation now even though its length has created interesting legal situations.
West German television, on the other hand, did present a powerful documentary on the camp marking the trial's second anniversary last fall.
But Wiesenthal, and even lawyers for the victims, reject this conspiracy notion. "The prosecution in this case has been absolutely in order," Wiesenthan says. The judge, has in fact, turned aside all of the controversial defense motions.
"It might hurt the German image because the proceedings are taking so long," says Dr. Rudolf Pick, who represents some of the victims of Majdanek. "But that would be unjust because the court is doing its best. In a free and democratic society, there simply are ways to impede and slow down the course of justice."
Bonn government officials - and other Israeli and Polish groups - say the same thing: that seeing the trial through in a calm way is the best approach and best for the system.
Though there are 28 defense lawyers, the one at the center, whom Wiesenthal calls "a terrible man," is Ludwig Bock.
Polish authorities, according to Wiesenthal, refused to give Bock a visa on grounds of alleged anti-Semitism. The lawyer, among other things, has charged that the well-known book "The Diary of a Young Girl," that of Anne Frank, is a forgery and has sought to introduce in court the recent book by British historian David Irvine that question whether 6 million Jews actually died under Hitler and suggest Hitler neither ordered the liquidation or was even aware of it until 1941.
Another of Bock's key points is that the ones on trial here were just lower level people carrying out orders. Trials such as the one now going appearing in court on the average of body anymore.
Meanwhile, the 14 defendents remain free on their own recognizance, appearing in court on the average of three days a week. "When it takes longer they quarrel with the court. It is quite impudent," says a lawyer here.
Ryan was the only one actually in jail for a while but she was freed on bail last fall and now lives nearby in a small apartment. Herrmann Hackmann, 64, the former deputy camp commander, continues working as a furniture store agent.
The West Germans have convicted almost 7,000 people of war crimes in courts since 1949 and another almost 5000 are either awaiting sentencing or under investigation.