Could this frail old man have been a Nazi killer?

`In Mir on 9 November 1941 Jews were shot all over town, but there were three principal execution sites'
Click to follow
For a British jury, it would have been difficult to see the tiny octogenarian with a hearing aid as a mass murderer who had taken part in the slaughter of innocent civilians.

But the elderly witnesses who flew in the spring of 1996 from Cape Town, Tel Aviv and Siberia to give evidence against Szymon Serafinowicz at committal proceedings remembered a different figure from the man in the flat cap and grey fur coat sitting in the quiet Surrey courtroom.

They recalled a handsome, leather-jacketed policeman in his early thirties who rode through their villages on a white horse. He carried a whip and a pistol, with a bayonet protruding from one of his long black boots.

During 27 days of often tearful evidence in the hearings at Dorking magistrates' court, they told Peter Badge, the chief metropolitan magistrate, how they saw their friends and families massacred in what were known as "Jewish Actions" in Nazi-occupied Belarus.

There were 3,000 Jews living in the town of Mir and the surrounding villages at the time of the German invasion of the western sector of the former Soviet Union in June 1941. By August 1942 virtually none were left.

Mr Serafinowicz, who was yesterday found by an Old Bailey jury to be unfit to plead to war crimes charges, was born eight miles from Mir. He held jobs on a farm and as a mill foreman before the Germans drove out the Russians. Then he was "among those who decided to throw in his lot with the Nazis", according to John Nutting QC, for the prosecution.

Mr Serafinowicz always preferred to describe the force he commanded as a "defence" force against the Russians or partisans. He was posted to Baranovichi in the spring of 1943 where he was involved in an anti-partisan unit.

Mr Nutting described how 2,000 Jews had been murdered in Mir on 9 November 1941 in atrocious scenes. "Jews were shot all over the town; but there were three principal execution sites - the main square, the old slaughterhouse at the back of the Polish school and a large sand pit near a medieval fortress on the outskirts."

Ze'ev Szraiber, a decorator who had worked in the police station and for the defendant, had seen Mr Serafinowicz with a group of armed police early that morning. As they passed a Jew on a street corner, two of the group shot the Jew dead, Mr Nutting said.

Also giving evidence would be Lev Abramovsky, 71, who now lives in Los Angeles. He was 16 at the time of the atrocities. Speaking with the aid of an interpreter, he told the Dorking court last year that on that day in November, he had witnessed the massacre in Mir, his home town. He hid in a barn and watched his mother and father, and other Jews, being marched to a sand-pit and shot by local police and Germans.

Later that day he was discovered and marched off to the pit. "They started shooting at us. We all fell into the pit. People who were shot fell on top of me and I fell underneath. I lost consciousness."

Soon afterwards he came round: "I could feel that I was alive, I was lying under the bodies. Some people were still alive. Blood was pouring, some of the people were moaning. I was near the top, there were just a few people on top of me. I managed to get out."

As the young Abramovsky pulled himself out of the pit, he realised the horror of what he had experienced: "I tried to wash my eyes, they were stuck together with blood. Then I was sick because I had swallowed lots of blood."

Mr Serafinowicz claimed that he had tried to stop the killing. He said: "I try my everything to save that people ... I didn't shoot anybody. I didn't give any orders to shoot."

However, Regina Bedynska, 70, told the magistrate that she had been hiding in an attic during the massacre. When she emerged from the house to get water from a well, she saw the police commander.

"When I went past Mr Serafinowicz I saw four Jewish men and one Jewish woman with a child approach. I knew they were Jews as they had stars on their clothing," she said. "They were running towards the fields."

Mrs Bedynska said Mr Serafinowicz had pulled up his rifle, taken aim and fired, shooting the woman. She said: "He shot and the woman fell on top of the child. She lay there, she didn't move. The child came out from under her. The child was seven or eight years old. The child was speaking in Polish, saying `Mummy get up, Mummy get up'."

Menachem Shalev, who was then 13, also said he had seen Mr Serafinowicz that day. He told the magistrate that he watched Jews being herded into the Mir slaughterhouse, where 720 were murdered. He said he listened to the shots. From the window of his home Mr Shalev said he saw Mr Serafinowicz, standing alone, in a black leather coat, bending over a short-barrelled German machine gun, which he was holding in front of him with both hands.

William Clegg QC, for the defence, had told Mr Badge: "Against this background no dishonourable motive can be assumed on behalf of local residents who joined the local police force."

The prosecution disagreed. "Special duties, for example the murder of Jews, were administered by Serafinowicz himself, and it was he who hand picked the policemen for such duties," Mr Nutting said.

Oswald Rufeisen, 73, who hid his Jewish identity and became Mr Serafinowicz's interpreter, said his employer was not anti-Semitic and had acted like an elder brother towards him.

But Mr Rufeisen, who is now a Catholic monk living in Israel, also told the magistrate that Mr Serafinowicz had taken part in the rounding up of the Jews in two villages, Kryniczne and Dolmatowszczy-zana, to be shot in the snow. "They went like sheep to the slaughter. There was no need to use sticks or force," he said.

Mr Rufeisen's explanation for his employer's behaviour was simple. "He was loyal to the Germans," he said. "If he wanted to keep his position he had to be good and to advance himself. Mr Serafinowicz's attitude was reflected in a blind execution of the orders he received from the Germans. I put the emphasis on the word blind."

Under cross-examination, he said he had a "confused picture" that included Mr Serafinowicz standing in the line. He also agreed that he had not seen the actual shooting at Kryniczne.

Mr Nutting told the Old Bailey jury that the massacres at Kryniczne and Dolmatowszczy-zana followed an order received at Mir police station from German headquarters. "Its effect was to order the liquidation of the remaining Jews scattered in the villages of the area."

There was snow on the ground at the time of the Kryniczne massacre on 17 January 1942, so horsedrawn sledges were prepared for the journey, Mr Nutting said. Mr Serafinowicz was in charge of the policemen, who were all armed with pistols or automatic rifles. Four Jewish families were lined up in the snow and shot.

At Dolmatowszczyzana, where more than 40 Jews were ordered to lie face down in the snow and shot, the police demanded that young men accompany them with shovels to the place where the Jews were to be murdered.

Mr Clegg, for Mr Serafinowicz, told the jury that in instructions to lawyers in 1995 his client had admitted being in Mir on 9 November 1941 but had not participated in the killing of Jews. He also denied that he had been present in Kryniczne or Dolmatowszczyzana when Jews were killed.