JERUSALEM, JULY 27 -- Testifying for the first time in his five-month-old war crimes trial, retired Cleveland auto worker John Demjanjuk pleaded with his judges today not to "put the noose around my neck for the deeds of others."
Taking the stand as the first defense witness, the man accused of being the sadistic Nazi death camp guard known as "Ivan the Terrible" said he grieves for Jewish victims of the Nazis.
However, he testified, he was never in Treblinka, the Polish extermination camp where he allegedly took part in the killing of 850,000 men, women and children during World War II.
"I am not the hangman you're after," he said.
During 4 1/2 hours of testimony, Demjanjuk depicted himself as a victim of mistaken identity. He said he had been doing physical labor in a prisoner-of-war camp during the months in which five Treblinka survivors have testified he tortured prisoners and operated the gas chambers.
Demjanjuk, who is 67, was born in the Ukraine and emigrated to the United States in 1952. He was naturalized but was stripped of his citizenship in 1981 for lying on his immigration papers. He was extradited to Israel last year to face a possible death penalty for crimes against humanity and the Jewish people.
Hundreds of spectators were in the converted theater being used as a courtroom as Demjanjuk testified about an early life in which he was so poor that he did not have the required changes of underwear when he was ordered to report for Soviet military service.
He described the famine in the winter of 1932-1933, after Moscow forcibly collectivized Ukrainian agriculture, as so horrible that it went beyond anything that humanity had known up to that time. His family, he said, ate birds and rats and even a pet cat. People were lying dead in their homes, in their yards, on the roads, he said.
Several times during Demjanjuk's testimony about his early life, the three-judge panel hearing the case admonished him and his attorneys to get to the meat of their evidence.
The judges' actions contrasted with their rulings early in the trial, when they allowed several days of testimony about aspects of the Holocaust that did not relate to Treblinka or to the accusations against Demjanjuk.
Demjanjuk testified that he had spent the period from the fall of 1942 until the spring of 1944 as an inmate in a German prisoner-of-war camp at Chelm, Poland. He said he first worked there as part of a construction gang carrying materials for building the camp. Later, Demjanjuk said, he unloaded trains and dug sod from the countryside.
He said he was transferred from Chelm in the spring of 1944 and joined Vlasov's Army, a force of Soviet prisoners who fought on the German side near the end of the war.
In addition to calling the five Treblinka survivors as witnesses, the prosecution presented as evidence what it said was an identification card establishing that Demjanjuk had volunteered for a special Nazi unit composed of prisoners and trained as death camp guards.
Demjanjuk's Israeli lawyer, Yoram Sheftel, promised in his opening argument that he will prove the document is a Soviet forgery.