Nazi's hired killer who lay low for 50 years

War crimes trial: How a former ticket collector hid a murderous past until Russians chose to expose him

Andrew Buncombe
Thursday 01 April 1999 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


IN THE small block of council flats where he lived in south London he was known simply as Tony. No one really knew much about him or his past, or even where he was from. Some people referred to him as "the German". All they knew for certain was that he had once worked on the railways.

For 25 years, Anthony Sawoniuk lived an anonymous existence on the Rouel Road estate in Bermondsey, keeping his past and its dark secrets to himself.

Those secrets have their genesis in a different country and in a different, desperate age, half a century and more than 1,000 miles away. They relate to the mass murder of innocents, of participation in genocide and of involvement in the Holocaust - crimes whose horrors have reverberated down the decades.

Sawoniuk was born in March 1921 in Domachevo, in what is now Belarus. His parents were unmarried and his family was poor. His Polish mother worked washing clothes for the town's Jewish families. Sawoniuk, nicknamed Andrusha, and his half-brother, Nikolai, would earn extra income by lighting fires for Jews on the Sabbath, or by chopping their wood.

The town of 4,000 people was largely free of racial conflict. Although Jews made up the majority of the population, there was no history of antagonism. All that was to change in June 1941 when the German Army invaded. The Nazis overran the town in hours and quickly set about establishing control. Sawoniuk, aged 20, volunteered to join the police force or Schutzmannschaft.

In the following three years he was to rise to the rank of commandant. In that period, dressed in the navy blue police uniform with a badge on the sleeve which read "Trust, Obedience and Courage", he was also responsible for the deaths of at least 18 Jews whom he murdered in cold blood.

These murders were committed against the backdrop of the Nazis' "Final Solution" - a plan of genocide drawn up by Reichsmarschall Herman Goring. From the moment the Nazis seized control of Domachevo, the fate of its 3,000 or more Jews was settled.

Almost immediately their homes were seized and they were forced into a ghetto. Anyone leaving without a permit was subject to an arbitrary beating, anyone considered guilty of a more serious "crime" could be executed.

But these isolated incidents, however terrible, paled in comparison, to what the Nazis did on one single day. In the early hours of 20 September 1942, the eve of the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, the Nazis rounded up the inhabitants of the ghetto and marched them to sandhills on the edge of town. The road they took would become known as the "Route of Death" and those 2,900 Jews would never be seen alive again.

"They were all being taken to their deaths. There were lots of them," recalled Galina Puchkina, who was just 12 years old when she was forced by the Nazis to witness the slaughter.

It was what took place in the aftermath of the massacre that finally caught up with Sawoniuk yesterday.

After the Jews were murdered and buried in mass graves, Sawoniuk was to organise "search and kill" teams to track down those who had escaped the slaughter.

Some days later, Fedor Zan, a schoolboy acquaintance of Sawoniuk, was passing through woods on the edge of town when he heard the sound of women crying. Creeping forward he saw 15 woman in a clearing, stripped to their underwear, standing in front of a pre-dug grave. In front of them stood the man he had known since childhood.

"He mowed them down with a machine gun. There were not less than 15 Jewish women," Mr Zan said in his evidence.

Another acquaintance of Sawoniuk, Alexander Baglay, now aged 69, watched him shoot three Jews before forcing their bodies into a pit.

He shot them in the back of the head with a pistol, said Mr Baglay, then aged 13. "Standing behind each of them [he] levered them into the pit by raising his knee."

These, at least, are the murders that have been proved. Local people in Domachevo made further allegations to British war crimes investigators. They said he led a family of Jews, the Yankels, to their deaths on the sandhills; they said he had been involved in murders in the nearby town of Chersk; they said he shot a family called Khalalyuk; they said he shot a baby of the Gerasamchuk family. But these allegations remain unproven.

Sawoniuk served with the police for a further two years after the massacre, tracking down resistance fighters living in the forest. His hatred of the partisans was fuelled by the death of his first wife - a Russian called Anna Maslova - who was killed while pregnant during an attack on the police station in November 1943.

In July 1944, when the Red Army counterattacked, Sawoniuk fled with the retreating Nazis and joined a Waffen SS regiment. He never returned.

After deserting from the SS and changing sides, Sawoniuk arrived in Britain in 1946, embarking on half a century of lies and deception. He settled first in Hove, East Sussex, before moving to Dulwich in south London where he worked at St Francis Hospital. In 1961 he started working for British Rail, first as a cleaner and then as a ticket collector at London Bridge station.

He remarried twice - first in 1947 to Christina van Gent, from whom he was divorced four years later, and then to Anastasia Davey who died in 1995. The couple had one son, Paul, 38, who despite using his mother's maiden name and claiming he no longer sees his father, has in fact been in touch throughout the trial. "I am not speaking to anyone - not to you or anyone else - not now, not ever," he said this week.

But for the interception of a letter by the KGB which proved he was in Britain, Sawoniuk might have succeeded in escaping justice for ever.

Certainly those people amongst whom he lived had no idea of his past. "I have been here as long as anybody and Tony has always been a nice bloke," said Marion Henry, a neighbour.

In Domachevo, those who remember Sawoniuk think differently. Ivan Tribunko, 60, a tractor driver, had a simple message. "My mother's family were killed and Andrusha was responsible. He was an animal. If they brought him back here he wouldn't leave alive."

Additional reporting by Linus Gregoriadis in London and Adam Le Bor in Domachevo.

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