Into the evil heart of history

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A BRITISH jury will make legal history today when its members arrive in Warsaw for an overnight stay on the first leg of an unprecedented four-day trip to the killing fields of the Holocaust.

The journey to Poland and Belarus is part of the proceedings of Britain's first Nazi war crimes trial over murders that allegedly took place in Domachevo, in western Belarus, in the autumn and winter of 1942.

The jurors, accompanied by the trial judge and court officials, will cross the border into Belarus on Monday under police escort at the city of Brest, where they will be based for two nights. On Tuesday they will travel to Domachevo, returning the same day to Brest and travelling back on Wednesday to Warsaw.

Anthony Sawoniuk, 77, a retired British Rail ticket collector from south London, is charged with four counts of murder during the Holocaust.

At the opening of the trial last Wednesday at the Old Bailey, John Nutting QC, for the prosecution, said Mr Sawoniuk was one of the first volunteers for the town's German-run police force, the Schutzmannschaft, after the Nazi invasion in the summer of 1941.

"On each occasion, say the Crown, this defendant executed Jewish men and women whose only crime was to be Jewish," he said. "The evidence indicates that the defendant was not only prepared to do the Nazi bidding but carried out their genocidal policy with enthusiasm."

Before the Holocaust, when several thousand Jews still lived and worked in Domachevo, a spa town near the river Bug in western Belarus, it was a popular tourism resort that supported many flourishing small hotels.

During the summer, tourists - mainly Jews, but also Poles, Bielorussians, Germans and Ukrainians - all took the waters there, providing a reasonable living for a town that was then ethnically mixed, albeit with a Jewish majority.

The jurors' unprecedented visit follows several days of harrowing allegations in court last week detailing the horror of the Holocaust as it descended on Domachevo, wiping out a centuries-old Jewish community as the bodies of men, women and children were machine-gunned into a mass grave.

Unlike most murder trials, this one included a detailed history lesson on the Nazi policy of extermination of Europe's Jewry as well as a potted history of Belarus, a former Soviet republic wedged between Poland and Russia that has been shunted back and forth over the centuries between east and central Europe's competing empires.

Born in March 1921, the accused was 20 when he volunteered to be a policeman. His mother died before the outbreak of the war and he was looked after by his grandmother, who, like the rest of the town, knew him as "Andrusha".

Money was tight, so the young Sawoniuk worked as a "Sabbath Goy", a non-Jew who carried out Sabbath tasks that were forbidden to Orthodox Jews, such as lighting fires or chopping wood. He even learnt some Yiddish from his employers.

He rose up the ranks in the Nazi police force. The prosecution said Mr Sawoniuk was eventually promoted to Commandant, where he served for three years before fleeing with the Nazis when the Soviets advanced westwards in 1944. Mr Sawoniuk denies all charges.

At both the $185 (pounds 116) a night, four-star Hotel Mercure Fryderyk Chopin in central Warsaw, and in the less luxurious Hotel Intourist in Brest, the jurors will be kept under 24-hour-a-day surveillance by legal officials to ensure the jury's "integrity".

The jurors' history lesson and journey into the past, in a region of Europe where wartime memories are still vivid and vital, will begin as soon as their British Airways flight touches down in Warsaw, a city still deeply scarred by the Second World War.

Although, like other former Communist capitals, Warsaw now boasts the usual array of designer clothes shops, American fast-food restaurants and western investment bankers that denote a successful transition to a market economy, it is a city with its heart ripped out.

Just as the Nazis systematically murdered the Jews of eastern Europe, exterminating communities such as those of Domachevo, the Wehrmacht and the SS systematically demolished Warsaw in 1944, street by street, block by block and house by house.

The same freezing wind that blows across the plains of Belarus, through the pine forests where the Germans and their accomplices lined up Jews in front of mass graves, gusts through Warsaw's modern shopping precincts, through streets that were once thronged with thriving, now vanished, Jewish communities.

In Domachevo little remains of the Jewish community. Jurors will see the concrete monument, topped by a Soviet Red Star, that commemorates the 2,900 Jews killed there in 1942, on the Day of Atonement, the holiest date in the Jewish calendar.

Non-Jewish locals were forced out of church to witness the massacre, John Nutting QC told the court last week, although he said that while Anthony Sawoniuk was a senior police official, there was "no evidence of his actual participation in the massacre that day".

The memorial inscription reads: "To the victims of the German fascist terror 1941-45". Like most Soviet era memorials, that at Domachevo makes no special mention that most of the victims were Jews. But for the jurors who have travelled there from the Old Bailey, the race and religion of those commemorated by the bleak snow-covered obelisk will be clear enough.