Jews? I liked them all my life, said the old man in the dock for Nazi killings
Saturday 20 March 1999
Anthony Sawoniuk, the 78-year-old naturalised British railway station cleaner accused of being a mass murderer during the Second World War, limped slightly. And the only sound to break the silence was the soft thump-thump of his rubber-tipped walking stick.
It was his turn now and he was walking out of the shadows of history to tell his story.
The court had waited a long time for his version of the events during his years as the Nazi-appointed police chief for a sleepy spa town among the forests of eastern Poland, now Belarus. They had heard, day after day, the graphic and horrifying details of the other side. And for five weeks Mr Sawoniuk, of Bermondsey, south London, had behaved impeccably. He had said not a word, but merely listened impassively as one witness after another came forward to accuse him of crimes so monstrous as to be almost beyond comprehension.
And they were not describing the acts of strangers, these witnesses. They had not struggled to remember the names and actions of hostile invaders, seen only briefly at the scene of the crime. Mr Sawoniuk had been one of them, they said,born and bred in the hamlets and farms around Domachevo, a town where almost everyone was Jewish and had lived for generations in peace. His accusers have included childhood friends, classmates and neighbours. All of them still used his childhood nickname, Andrusha, during the trial.
The indictment against him had originally contained four counts, which involved up to 20 murders. But the judge, Mr Justice Potts, had that morning instructed the jury to acquit him of two of the murders, largely because there had been no witnesses. But that left the two worst of the alleged atrocities, and here there were witnesses.
There had been the chilling testimony of Fedor Zan, now 75, who had once sat beside him in a classroom - and who saw him one day standing behind 15 Jewish women in a forest with a sub-machine gun in his hand. He forced the women to strip, said Mr Zan, before mowing them down and pushing their bodies into pre-dug grave.
Another who knew him, Alexander Baglay, only 12 at the time, said he and a friend were taken by Mr Sawonuik into the same part of the forest and forced to watch another small massacre. This time it was two Jewish men, both aged 40, and a Jewish woman, 20, who were forced to strip in front of a prepared grave. The woman, he remembered, did not want to remove her underpants. Mr Sawoniuk forced her to do so, then, said Mr Baglay, he casually raised a pistol and fired single shots into the backs of their heads, before using his knee to push them into the ground.
All of this, said his barrister William Clegg, QC, yesterday in his opening address, was emotive and painful - but it was all utterly untrue. Mr Sawoniuk, he said, had never taken part in any of it. These witnesses had lied for reasons of their own.
His client simply had not been present - and would soon be telling them a vastly different story... that of an impoverished young peasant who was forced to take a minor police job by the Nazis in order to eat and stay alive, but whose hands were clean.
"No skeletons were ever found at the sites of these massacres," Mr Clegg said. "No evidence has ever existed that such events ever took place. The defendant was a man of no importance. He gave no orders, made no decisions. I ask you to do the impossible. We do no dispute that terrible things happened in that town, but I ask that you cast from your minds the cries of terror and gunfire of those days, and judge this man on the evidence that you hear. Listen to his story and try to understand what he did during those terrible days."
And then it was, finally, Mr Sawoniuk's turn. White-haired, but fresh- faced and alert, he looks younger than his years, although one of the first things he did was describe his many ailments. Speaking in rapid, heavily accented English, he said he was a diabetic, deaf in one ear, that he limped from a hip operation and had undergone a heart by-pass operation and suffered from dangerously high blood pressure. "I have something wrong with my brain," he said. "I had the electric shock to my head. They said it was mental illness."
His evidence-in-chief was only to last one hour. The judge had agreed that his state of health meant he must be given time and patience. And for the first 20 minutes, it was a quiet and polite man who stood in the dock, grasping the rail for support. The first sign of passion came when he was asked if there was anti-Semitism in his town. He appeared confused by the word, but when the word "Jew" was used, he became agitated for the first time. "No, no, no," he said. "Everybody was happy. The Jewish people were largest group in Domachevo. I like them. Always, all my life, I liked the Jews."
He denied vehemently the Jews had been rounded up into a ghetto. "No ghetto, never been no ghetto," he said. "They lived freely, the Jews. They lived always in their own homes. No ghetto, no." Minutes later, to gasps from the court, he was being asked where the police station in the town was and he replied: "Across the road from the ghetto."
When the Germans came, he said, he was almost starving, working where he could onlocal farms. When he was asked to join the town's police force, founded mainly to fight the partisans, he did so only because he feared the Nazis would send him off to forced labour. He never had a uniform and he was never given any regular wages.
Then came the frightening day, on Yom Kippur, September, 1942, a day around which much of this trial has been structured, when the Jews of Domachevo who had been rounded up from their ghetto were taken away to be massacred in the sand hills deep in the forest. At least 2,900 men, women and children were massacred by gunfire by units of Gestapo, SS and special duty forces. It was one of the largest single-day massacres of the Holocaust.
And it was in the weeks that followed, when the Germans attempted to round up Jews in hiding, scores more died, bringing the total to well over 3,000 - nearly 100 per cent of the Jewish population. It is alleged that it was during this "search and kill" operation that Mr Sawoniuk - behaving like a wild animal and flaunting his power as police chief - carried out his personal massacres.
Were you there during the main Jewish massacre, he was asked. "No, no. I was away for two or three days. I went to a village, but I cannot remember its name. It was about eight or 10 miles away. I had a boy friend and a young girl friend. I walked there. I can only remember the direction of the village was past the railway station and into the forest. I wish I could remember the name of the village, but I cannot." When you returned had the Jews gone? "Yes. They did tell me what had happened." What were the German's doing? "They were searching, searching. Looking for the Jews." Did you look for the Jews? "No sir, I never looked for the Jews."
The big questions came suddenly, and with it the white-haired man exploded in rage, stunning the courtroom.
It is said that you shot 15 ladies in the forest, said his counsel. "It is a lie," roared the accused man. It is said that you killed three people near an electricity station. "It's another lie. A lie," he said, almost screaming and jabbing the air with the finger of his left hand. "I never did anything. I never...
"I never hate Jews. They were my best friends. I was born next door to them, I grew up with them, I went to school with them. They accuse me, they lie. It is lies. It is lies. I have been accused of all these things. The people who accuse me should be locked up..."
Mr Sawoniuk was close to tears, and he suddenly looked around the court and pointed to somebody sitting near the rear. "They lied," he said. "He is here, him... he lied." At this point the judge told him to calm himself. Around the court, people tried to identify the figure he had pointed to. But there was nobody, only a few court officials. All of the witnesses from Domachevo had returned home.
The rest of his evidence was given quietly. He claimed that he left Domachevo in late 1943 as the Russians swept across Europe, made his way to Italy where he joined the Free Polish army, trained in Egypt then served in Italy and France. In 1946, he arrived as a refugee in Scotland before moving to Kent. For many years, he said, he did odd jobs in towns like Brighton and Reigate beforemarrying and settling in London. His wife died, but he has a son and two grandchildren, he said, and for 26 years he worked at London Bridge station. He had committed no wrong. He had lived quietly.
Finally, he admitted to two lies. He had told police who arrested him he had never married. That, he said, was because he had never told his second wife he had been married. But more, importantly, he had lied when he was asked if he had been a policeman during the Nazi occupation of his home town. "I was frightened they would deport me," he said. "If they knew that I had been in German police they might send me back."
That was the case for his defence. Next week he will face a more hostile reception under cross-examination. As he left the court, his demeanour had improved. He smiled at his legal team. He had told his side of the story.
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