Polish native gets life terms in England for war crimes

South London man, 78, convicted of killing Jews


LONDON -- For more than 50 years, Anthony Sawoniuk lived a quiet existence in Britain, settling in South London and earning a modest living as a railway cleaner and ticket collector. But he was a man harboring dark secrets from the distant past, and they have finally caught up with him.

After an emotionally charged trial at the Old Bailey, Sawoniuk, 78, who suffers from diabetes, walks with a heavy limp and is so deaf that the judge in the case had to shout to make himself heard, was convicted of two counts of murder yesterday in connection with the 1942 killings of 18 Jews in Domachevo, a former Polish town that is now part of Belarus. He was sentenced twice to life in prison, once for each count.

Sawoniuk -- whose name had long been on a KGB list of possible war criminals who had escaped to Britain -- was the first person in Britain to be tried under the country's 1991 War Crimes Act, and may well be the last.

Other suspected war criminals have died before the cases could proceed, or have not been tried because of infirmity.

In Sawoniuk's case, the charges stemmed from incidents in the sleepy spa town of Domachevo in 1942, a year or so after the Nazis came and herded the entire Jewish population into a makeshift ghetto.

Sawoniuk, a Domachevo native who was 20 at the time, was appointed police chief and charged with enforcing the new laws against Jews he had played with and gone to school with.

On Yom Kippur in September 1942, some 2,900 Jews were rounded up and killed.

Sawoniuk was not accused of taking part in the massacre, but rather of taking part in a "search and kill" operation to hunt down survivors. There had originally been more than 4,000 Jews in Domachevo; when the Nazis were done, witnesses said, there were 12.

The 11-member jury heard a number of elderly witnesses testify to the horrifying acts committed by the Nazis and by Sawoniuk in particular. Their testimony proved all the more compelling because in a small community of about 5,000 people, most of them Jews, they had known the defendant and called him by his nickname, Andrusha.

One witness, Fedor Zan, who had the seat behind Sawoniuk's in school, said that he had seen the defendant shoot and kill 15 Jewish women in a forest after forcing them to take their clothes off. "He mowed them down with a machine gun," Zan said.

Sawoniuk denied all the charges, testifying that the Jews had not been so much as mistreated, and said the past was too murky for him to remember it properly.

But, he said, he never killed anyone. "I never hate Jews," he told the court. "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."

Sawoniuk, who arrived in Scotland as a refugee in 1946, claiming to have spent the war fighting against the Nazis, managed for most of his life to keep his past a secret, not even telling two of his wives what he had done.

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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