LYONS, FRANCE, JUNE 4 -- One by one, they limp to the witness stand.
Their voices tremble with the pain of memories buried for years. Some are so hard of hearing by now that they answer the wrong questions. Others are so shaky they have to testify sitting down.
As the trial of Klaus Barbie for crimes against humanity ends its fourth week here, however, testimony against the former Nazi SS lieutenant gradually is gathering a terrible strength.
The degree of evil recalled before the court, and the personal nightmares suffered by elderly people telling their stories, have accumulated such weight as the days go by that they appear to have limited the defensive thrusts of Barbie's normally agile lawyer.
The lawyer, Jacques Verges, had warned that he would turn Barbie's trial before the Lyons Assizes Court into the trial of France and French conduct during and after World War II. He would, he said, focus attention on French collaboration with the Nazis or alleged French atrocities in Algeria, rather than on Barbie's activities as a Gestapo officer here from 1942 to 1944.
But the agonizing recitations of witnesses brought forth as Barbie's victims -- although often disjointed, even contradictory through the haze of time and aging -- appear to have disarmed Verges at least for the moment. He has no questions for many witnesses. For those he cross-examines, he has to soften his blows out of apparent concern at appearing callous in the face of their suffering.
The state prosecution and civil plaintiffs, deprived of a cathartic confrontation by Barbie's refusal to remain in the dock except for one brief appearance, thus have the satisfaction of seeing the allegations against him mount steadily in chilling detail, inside the courtroom and in the French press, with little contradiction from the defense and none at all from Barbie.
French officials have said airing these charges for the postwar generation is the trial's most important function. Although the death penalty has been abolished in France, there is little doubt that Barbie, 73, will finish his days in prison.
Barbie already has been convicted in absentia and sentenced to death for war crimes twice, in 1952 and 1954, for what he did to Jews and resistance militants. He is being tried this time for crimes against humanity on the basis of different evidence and testimony, but for the same kind of conduct.
Alice Vansteenberghe, 78, hobbled to the witness stand on crutches to give her testimony about that conduct. Through a hole in her cell wall, she told the court, she saw Barbie help organize the departure of a train on Aug. 11, 1944, that carried hundreds of Jews and underground activists to German concentration camps even as Nazi forces were retreating from Lyons and the war was approaching its end in France.
"It is that man," she said. "That man is responsible."
Through the same hole, Vansteenberghe said, she saw Barbie pull a Jewish infant from the arms of its mother, who was then sent off on that last deportation train leaving France for destinations such as the death camps, Auschwitz and Dachau.
"That is something I will never forgive him for," she said. "I promised myself. I have said it before. I have written it before. That is no longer warfare. That is inhuman."
Barbie's role in the dispatch of that final train is one of three main charges brought against him. The other two concern his role in the deportation of 44 Jewish children and a roundup at the Lyons office of the main wartime Jewish organization in France.
Vansteenberghe, who was a young doctor at the time, said she recognized Barbie because she noted then a protuberance on his ear and a habit of separating his little finger from the others, in the manner of a fastidious lady drinking tea. As Barbie's prisoner in 1944, she saw him close up during interrogation during which she was permanently crippled, she added.
"A quarter of an hour after being arrested, I had no more fingernails and a broken thumb," she said. "I had left my house that morning happy in my body, like people are when they leave home early in the morning, happily. I have not known that feeling since then. I have never walked again that way."
Verges had no questions and Vansteenberghe was helped to her seat in a courtroom hushed by her quiet vehemence.
Fernand Hahn, 64, told the court he was lined up with a group of fellow prisoners to await a June 1944 train also bound for the concentration camps. As they waited, he recalled, Barbie arrived at the station with several German soldiers and addressed the departing prisoners from the other side of the tracks.
"He began to . . . he started to . . . " Hahn gripped the rail in front of him and looked for his words. "Well, he talked to us. And he began with a sort of laugh. And he said, 'You will not return alive from where you are going.' "
Presiding Judge Andre Cerdini asked Hahn how he could be sure the man was Barbie.
"Because he told us who he was," Hahn replied.
Verges, rising, turned to Cerdini and the jury. Speaking softly, he acknowledged the importance of Hahn's testimony, which indicated Barbie was aware what his deportees were bound for. Barbie, in pretrial depositions, has denied knowing what happened in the camps where he sent the prisoners.
Still softly, the normally volcanic Verges said he was "troubled" by the need to cross-examine someone who had undergone so much suffering. But he nevertheless sought to question what he called Hahn's "stupefying" testimony.
But he recalled that Hahn also testified that Barbie had during the same talk expressed certainty Germany was losing the war, bragged about "booty" he had stored up, revealed that he was in contact with U.S. intelligence and claimed to have an airplane ready to fly him to a South American haven.
"All this in front of German soldiers right in the middle of the battle for Normandy. This man has told you things that cannot be believed," Verges said.
"It is not sufficient to have been deported and to have returned, to put all the blame on Barbie, this is not sufficient to be believed, or for you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, who are honest people, to believe him."
Francine Gudefin, 80, told how she was disfigured by blows to her face by Barbie and his aides. Some blows were delivered because she urinated on the floor in panic while being forced by Barbie to watch her brother tortured, she said.
"I have nothing against those who don't understand," she added. "They couldn't possibly understand."
After several such interrogations, she recalled, she also was put on the Aug. 11 train to death camps. Barbie, she insisted, personally called off the names of those being sent away.
"He pronounced my name wrong," she said, "but he is the one."