Out of Australia: The bitter taste of vintage crime

JACOB'S CREEK - The people of the Barossa Valley in South Australia are marking the 150th anniversary of one of the country's oldest wineries, near where Johann Gramp, a German immigrant, planted the first grapes by the banks of Jacob's Creek.

Gramp was a pioneer in a community of Lutheran refugees who fled to the colony of South Australia in the 1840s to escape religious persecution in northern Germany. They bequeathed an attractive wine-growing region with German town names and a claret bearing the creek's name which has gone on to become Australia's biggest-selling red wine.

South Australia has remained a magnet for German settlers ever since. In Adelaide, just a few miles away from the tranquil hills of Jacob's Creek, the theme of German persecution, 20th-century style, is being played out in a more sinister and sometimes bizarre fashion: the city is the location for Australia's first prosecutions against immigrants for alleged war crimes committed under the Nazi occupation of Europe during the Second World War.

Australia passed a War Crimes Act in 1988 after an official inquiry reported there were hundreds of suspected former Nazis living in the country. Independent researchers say the number is more likely to be in the thousands. Most of them arrived in a flood of refugees after the war, when the Australian government was keen to attract European immigrants. Few, if any, steps were taken to screen their war records.

With assistance from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a Special Investigations Unit set up in Australia in 1987 identified almost 600 suspects. Only three have been charged so far, all of them elderly Ukrainian-born pensioners who had been leading quiet lives in Adelaide suburbs.

The two cases which have come to court in Adelaide so far have produced a barrage of sensations, outcries and farces. When I attended a session of the court the other day, I was not disappointed in this regard.

The focus of the pre-trial hearing, Mikolay Berezowsky, 78, sat in a rumpled suit, leaning on a walking-stick. The prosecution has alleged that he was head of a police unit at the Ukraine village of Gnivan, that he was recruited by the Nazis after their occupation in 1941, and was involved in the murder of more than 100 Jews who were shot and buried in a mass grave in 1942. At this stage, Mr Berezowsky has not been asked to enter a plea.

Several residents of Gnivan at the time, now in their sixties and seventies, have been brought to Adelaide to give evidence. The proceedings are being relayed to the witnesses and the accused through interpreters. One elderly woman told the court she had seen Mr Berezowsky kill a baby with a whip or a stick when the baby's mother begged him to let them go. She said she recognised his build and voice, but had not seen his face.

Prosecution lawyers showed her photographs taken around 1950 and asked if she could identify Mr Berezowsky. After a long pause, she picked a portrait. Then she asked to see them again and pointed to another. 'He was such a young fellow then . . . Could that be him?' Neither one was correct.

The case has highlighted the inherent difficulty of launching successful prosecutions over war crimes of decades ago, relying largely on elderly witnesses with poor memories. Legal experts in Australia have criticised the war crimes legislation on these grounds, and say the vast cost does not justify the process, however morally-based the intentions.