Anthony Sawoniuk was a Belarusian Nazi collaborator in the Second World War. His home town was 90 per cent Jewish – and though he may have had a Jewish father, he took part in the murder of the Jewish community in his home town.
As the Russians advanced, he defected to the Polish II Corps in the British Eighth Army and later settled in Britain – and became a ticket collector at London Bridge railway station. TOBY PORTER tells the story of the only man found guilty of war crimes in the UK.
Nazi death squads murdered 2,900 Jews in Domachevo, a small town in today’s Belarus, on the night before the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur.
The barrels of the machine guns became so hot, soldiers had to wear asbestos gloves to protect their hands.
After the massacre, the Nazis moved on to the next ghetto and left their own locally-recruited police force to murder any remaining Jews.
One of those involved, Domachevo native Anthony Sawoniuk, was tried for war crimes at the Old Bailey in 1999.
Andrei Sawoniuk had been born in Domaczewo, Poland – now Damačava, Belarus – a spa town on the Bug River.
At that time 90 per cent of the town’s population were Jewish, with the remainder being Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Germans. Sawoniuk, was described as Belarusian, though some newspaper reports said his mother was Polish.
Sawoniuk never knew the identity of his father. His neighbours thought it was Josef Jakubiak, the town’s Jewish schoolmaster, because his mother Pelagia had been working as a cleaner at Jakubiak’s school and home during the months when Sawoniuk was conceived.
His mother worked washing clothes while Sawoniuk and his half-brother collected firewood to sell. Sawonuik also worked as a sabbath goy: a gentile employed by Orthodox Jews to carry out Sabbath tasks that were forbidden to them, such as lighting fires or chopping wood.
He learnt basic Yiddish from his employers. But that did not stop him taking part in their mass murder when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.
They set up a police unit in Domachevo which he was one of the first to join – and carried out his duties with enthusiasm, eventually taking joint charge.
After 2,900 Jews were rounded up and murdered on September 20, 1942, he led the squads that hunted down those who had escaped.
The convictions rested on the eyewitness accounts of two men who still lived in the area.
Fedor Zan, 75 at the time of the trial, described how he had been walking through woodland on the day of the massacre when he heard screaming.
While hiding, he watched Sawoniuk shoot 15 women with a submachine gun and saw their naked bodies fall into a pre-dug grave.
Alexander Baglay recalled the day when he and a friend had been ordered to watch Sawoniuk shoot two Jewish men and a Jewish woman.
He described how Sawoniuk shot them in the back of the head. “They fell into the pit one after the other and he levered them into the pit,” he said in evidence.
Mr Baglay, then 67, told the court that Sawoniuk had driven him to the sandhills near Domachevo, which were used as a local execution site.
The Jewess and the two men were standing on the edge of a sand pit and Sawoniuk ordered the Jewess to undress.
“The Jewess did not want to take off her underpants. She was 28 or 29. When she refused he threatened her with a truncheon.
When she had undressed, they were lined up and shot.
“He shot them with his pistol in the back of the head.”
There were numerous stories of him beating Jewish women and children.
One witness at the trial said Sawoniuk had told him he now had “the opportunity to finish off the Jews”.
Sawoniuk then joined the 30th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS – but the tide of the war had turned.
He retreated with the German army in July 1944 as the Red Army advanced towards Domaczewo.
But he had an escape route. He used his Polish birth certificate to join the 10th Hussar Regiment of the Polish Free Army, when it was clear the Nazi war effort was collapsing.
He served briefly in Egypt and Italy before sailing with the regiment to Glasgow.
He was demobilised in Sussex in 1947 and began a new life.
Here he worked as a ticket collector for British Rail at London Bridge railway station.
He was one of thousands of Eastern Europeans who had collaborated with the Nazis and then emigrated to Britain after the war.
Sawoniuk settled in England, posing as a Polish patriot. He then lay low for almost 50 years, eventually retiring after years of grumpily checking tickets at London Bridge.
But in 1951 he had written a letter to his half-brother, Nikolai – which the KGB intercepted.
It was the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s which brought Sawoniuk to the attention of investigators – the letter came to light as the Cold War thawed.
Even then, due to a misspelling of his name, it took until 1994 for authorities to realise that Sawoniuk, then working for British Rail, was one of the people on the KGB list.
Sawoniuk had, by that time, become a British citizen.
After Sawoniuk’s arrest in 1994, witness testimony proved crucial.
The trial raised important questions. Was it right to prosecute minor perpetrators like Sawoniuk?
Should old men be tried for acts committed when they were teenagers or young men? And, in the absence of forensic or documentary evidence, how reliable was the testimony of eyewitnesses so many years later?
He was tried at the Old Bailey in 1999 on two specimen charges of murder of Jews in his German-occupied hometown during the Second Wold War.
The jury found him guilty of one charge by unanimous decision and of the other by a 10 to one majority.
Both killings were part of two group murders – in the first Sawoniuk, according to eyewitnesses, shot 15 Jews; in the second he shot three Jews.
At his trial Sawoniuk said of his accusers: “They are professional liars. They have criminal records. Some of the witnesses at the magistrates court have done 25 years, alcoholics. I was the best friend of the Jews.
“Everyone is telling lies. They have been told by the Russian KGB to say there was a ghetto. These devils came here with their lies against me.
“I have done no crime whatsoever. My conscience is clear. I killed no one. I would not dream of doing it. I am not a monster – I am an ordinary working-class poor man.
“I have never been in the German army”.
Also in court, he accused a member of the Met of fabricating a Waffen-SS document which contained his details.
He speculated that the Met had conspired against him with the help of the KGB.
He was given two life sentences, and trial judge Mr Justice Potts recommended that Sawoniuk should spend the rest of his life in prison.
Sawoniuk died in Norwich Prison of natural causes in 2005, aged 84.
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