Munich – The slumped presence of John Demjanjuk, the alleged Nazi camp guard on trial in Munich, became almost irrelevant as the court heard an unlikely tale of survival on Tuesday from a man who lost most of his family during the Holocaust. Jules Schelvis was 22 years old in May 1943, when he was rounded up and bundled onto an eastbound train, along with his wife Rahel, her parents and several close relatives living in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter.

He was one of 62 men and women, “and a child’s pram,” packed into a freight carriage for 72 hours, with a small window for fresh air and two barrels – “one for nature’s call, and the other filled with water,” as Schelvis told the court.

Their destination was Sobibor concentration camp in occupied Poland, where Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk is alleged to have worked that same year, one of a group of guards who herded 27,900 Jews into gas chambers.

Upon their arrival at Sobibor, Schelvis said he did not immediately realize that the men and women were being separated. There was no opportunity to say goodbye to his wife.

“I could not greet or kiss her any more,” Schelvis said of the moment he last saw Rahel. The men were led into a large yard and told to look straight ahead. The following month, Rahel died in Sobibor’s gas chamber, aged 22.

Schelvis was not amongst the 80 men selected for manual labour – the only ticket to survival. But intuition led him to pipe up and ask the guard, in schoolboy German, if he could join his brother-in-law in the other group.

The officer took a second look and decided he was fit enough to join the group. Only later did Schelvis realize how narrowly he had escaped death.

From Sobibor, Schelvis was sent to a string of concentration camps. He cut peat and toiled over heavy manual labour, and bore witness to the murderous activities of the Nazis and their accomplices.

“I saw the most terrible things,” Schelvis sobbed. “I can hardly talk about them. The foreign guards – of whom Demjanjuk is alleged to have been one – were considered even more ruthless than the German officers.

“We soon saw, these people are worse than all others,” Schelvis told the court.

Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk is accused of having agreed to work as a unified officer of the Nazi SS army, in return for being freed from a camp for Soviet prisoners of war.

Eventually Schelvis arrived in the ghetto of Radom in Poland, which he described as “heaven,” after the hell he had left behind. Here, Jews were still living in their homes and had a degree of autonomy.

A few months later however, he witnessed the “liquidation” of the ghetto, during a Nazi extermination drive in November 1943, in which around 42,000 Jews were killed.

From here, Schelvis was taken to Auschwitz, where he once again “landed on the good side.” He was considered fit to work, thus avoiding certain death.

By the end of the war, he had been moved to a German concentration camp, in the town of Vaihingen an der Enz, freed by the French in April 1945.

By now however, Schelvis was fighting a personal battle as he had contracted typhus fever, a disease that killed many concentration camp inmates.

“You’ll just have to get through this,” he told himself. Two months later, Schelvis was well enough to return home.

Schelvis spent 10 years conducting research, before he published Sobibor: A History of a Nazi Death Camp.

Extracts from the book featured in the Munich trial, in which more than 30 Dutch Jews jointly accused Demjanjuk of being an accessory to murder at Sobibor.

Demjanjuk showed no reaction throughout Schelvis’ tale of survival, which contained no tangible evidence to implicate the defendant, but served as a reminder of why the 89-year-old was facing trial.