Key witness to fly in for war trial

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The Independent Online
AN interpreter whose task was to tell civilian victims of the Nazis that they were about to be shot, is to be a key prosecution witness in Britain's first war crimes trial, expected next year.

Oswald Rufeisen, who is Jewish, pretended to be a Cath-olic to avoid execution during the mass killings carried out by the Germans in occupied eastern Europe. After the war he became a Carmelite monk.

Next year his eye-witness accounts of systematic executions are likely to be a central feature of the trial of a former head of police in Belorussia, who now lives in Surrey.

The man facing trial is Siemon Serafimowicz, 84, of Banstead. During the war he was a senior police official in Mir, Belorussia, which was under German occupation, and he allegedly led regular expeditions into surrounding districts to shoot dead all Jews. He denies any murders.

The witness, Oswald Rufeis-en, 73, says that he was employed by Serafimowicz as an interpreter. They last saw each other in 1942, and Rufeisen assumed that his former boss was either dead or living in East Germany under an assumed name. The two, who once shared a home, have not met for more than half a century.

Two years ago, Scotland Yard's war crimes unit tracked Serafimowicz down to Surrey. He had come to Britain with his wife, Jagwida, in 1947, and worked as a carpenter. Detectives have taken statements from the monk, and intend to place him in the witness box at the Old Bailey next year.

Rufeisen, now known as Father Daniel, told his story to an American academic, Nechama Tec, who published it in a book, In the Lion's Den, in 1990. In the book he describes his former employer. He told the author that he appreciated some of Serafimowicz's qualities, but he was repulsed by his active participation in the murder of innocent people. Serafimowicz came from a humble Belorussian background, but had married the daughter of a Polish settler, so raising his social status.

"He was uneducated but an exceptionally intelligent man," the monk said. "He had charm. He had many friends and he knew how to deal with people. He had a charismatic influence over his policemen. They follow-ed him willingly, almost blindly."

According to the monk, Serafimowicz carried out mass murders of Jews on German orders, because he had a violent hatred of the Russians.

He told the author of the book: "Because the Germans opposed the Russians as well as the Jews, Serafimowicz accepted their policies towards both. Personally he had no special resentment towards the Jews, neither was he a pathological murderer, as some of the others were. Once he started on what to him was an anti-Communist path he continued. Once he began, he did not look for a way out."

According to the priest, when he first saw him in 1941, Serafimowicz was a tall man with an imposing presence, a graceful frame and a deep voice.

Rufeisen had escaped from the Jewish ghetto in Vilnius, Lithuania, and was living as a non-Jew and working as a school janitor, claiming that his father was German and his mother Polish. He spoke both languages fluently. Serafimowicz, in charge of four police stations in Mir, with between 12 and 14 policemen under his command, visited the school, and was impressed with the man's languages. He offered him a post as his German teacher and interpreter.

The local police, together with the German occupying police in the Mir region, would regularly go out to villages to kill Jewish communities, with the aim of making the area "clean of Jews", or Judenrein. The German head of police, Reinhold Hein, ordered that all killings must be methodical and orderly. Victims would be told that they were enemies of the Reich and, in accordance with Hitler's will, they had to die. The man in charge of the operation would read this out in German, and Rufeisen would have to translate it into Belorussian.

Rufeisen began to tip off local communities more and more that a raid was coming, and in 1942, was betrayed to Hein. But he managed to escape, and survived the war as a fugitive with Catholic nuns.

He became a Carmelite monk, and a priest, and now lives in a monastery in Haifa, Israel, waiting for the day when he can to tell a court at the Old Bailey what he remembers.

Mr Serafimowicz said last week: "They say I killed so many people but it is all lies. There is nothing I want to say. I am an old man. Why can't I be left alone?" He would not talk about the war: "No, you have caused me trouble. I am sorry, no." His solicitor has told him not to talk publicly about the case.

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