Kismet: it’s not just a small city in Kansas, as the saying should go. It’s also what you need when you’re endeavoring to write the definitive story of a unique British legal saga that, despite being billed as the “trial of the century” in 1999, had been all but forgotten within a decade.
By his own admission, Mike Anderson got plenty of lucky breaks while researching the remarkable story of how a Belarusian Nazi collaborator finally paid for his acts of barbarity some 60 years later. He remains the only war criminal to be successfully tried in the United Kingdom.
The greatest piece of luck, though, is for anyone is to pick up and read a copy of Anderson and co-author Neil Hanson’s engrossing new book “The Ticket Collector from Belarus: An Extraordinary True Story of the Holocaust and Britain’s Only War Crime Trial.”
The book doesn’t so much suggest it would lend itself to a screen adaptation as much as arrive in gift-wrapped form for any smart film or TV producer – with characters who leap off the page and into your imagination.
Forgive the hyperbole, but this is a story with everything. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but picture the 77-year-old at its core, Andrei “Andrusha” Sawoniuk (aka Anthony, after he strolled into Britain in June 1946), as the grumpy old man in Pixar’s “Up.” However, this man’s gruesome backstory happened to involve massacring hundreds of Jews and partisans in the Belarusian border town of Domachevo after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union (of which Belarus was then part) in June 1941.
A bastard by birth, Sawoniuk became a truly evil bastard by choice as he embarked on search-and-kill missions as part of the Schutzmannschaft, the local auxiliary police forces following Nazi orders. He hunted down Jewish survivors of the Yom Kippur massacre on the outskirts of the resort town when SS death squads machined-gunned to death some 2,900 men, women and children in September 1942.
Equally damning was the fact that he volunteered to join the police as soon as the Germans occupied Domachevo in June 141, while his own half-brother Nikolai quit the force after only a week when he realized the job involved killing Jews.
Hiding in plain sight
The remarkable thing is that it didn’t take decades of sleuthing by the Simon Wiesenthal Center to unearth Sawoniuk in the southeast London neighborhood of Bermondsey in the mid-1990s. After all, his name was in the phonebook, and he had what some might imagine as the perfect modern profession for a fascist: ticket collector at a London railroad station. Instead, it took the formation of the War Crimes Unit in 1991 and some good-old-fashioned legwork (and trawling through KGB and Stasi files) to recognize that London had a mass murderer in its midst.
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There were likely hundreds of Sawoniuks in Britain after the war, after many stole in under the guise of serving in the Polish army during the war. However, he was the only war criminal to ever be convicted of his crimes, sentenced to life imprisonment on two counts of murder, on April 1, 1999.
And what a trial it was, where an angry altercation in the restroom between Sawoniuk and a Holocaust survivor was almost mundane in comparison to some of the other dramas.
It was the first time a British jury had ever been taken overseas to visit the scene of the crime – a move the defense had accidentally set in motion and which ultimately weighed heavily against its client.
There were also numerous larger-than-life characters, including several wide-eyed Belarusians who arrived in London, amazed to discover flushing toilets and hot water in their hotel rooms.
Despite the gravity of the situation, there was also laughter in the courtroom. Much of it came, inadvertently, from the defendant and his frequent and outlandish claims – including that Domachevo’s Jews were not required to wear yellow stars and could roam the town freely. Furthermore, he said the town didn’t have a ghetto, even though he then described the police station where he worked as being situated “opposite the ghetto.”
It was some of the most self-incriminating testimony ever heard in a British courtroom, all delivered in Eastern European-inflected pidgin English. Sawoniuk’s virulent antisemitism was never far from the surface. (Even in court, Sawoniuk insisted on referring to “Jew boys” when conversing with his legal team.)
One example: After being informed that every witness had spoken about Domachevo having a ghetto, sounding like a Cockney Gollum he raged: “They have to speak that, do they not? They have been told by the Russian KGB, innit, to say that. They all tell the lies, every one of them” – all while banging his fist on the rail of the witness box.
Little wonder the prosecution team used to compare him to Peter Sellers’ Nazi scientist in “Dr. Strangelove,” forever struggling to stop his right arm from doing the Hitler salute.
Even his own defense counsel, Bill Clegg, conceded years later that Sawoniuk was a man without a single redeeming feature. He died in November 2005 in Norwich Prison, without ever expressing remorse for his actions.
At the trial’s heart was a stranger-than-fiction tale involving two childhood friends – Sawoniuk and his Jewish neighbor Ben-Zion Blustein, born in 1921 and 1924, respectively. They would become wartime adversaries and not meet for over 50 years – until the dramatic day when the latter finally got his day in court, on behalf of all his slain family members and friends. He was the only Jewish person called to bear witness to the mass murderer’s crimes.
It’s a terrific achievement by the British writers. Neither of them actually spent a single day in court during the trial or has visited Domachevo due to that pesky pandemic that refuses to go away.
You’d never guess it from the book. It paints a wonderfully vivid picture both of proceedings in the Old Bailey – arguably the grandest of all English courts – and distant Belarus, both during the war and when the jury and judge visited Domachevo during the trial in February 1999.
Their book also emerges at a time when Belarus is in the news for its attempts to rewrite history. This makes it a timely, vital reminder of what occurred to the country’s Jews and reemphasizes the true meaning of the word “Holocaust,” which the Belarusian regime is trying to use for its own losses during the war.
As Anderson points out in a Zoom interview with Hanson and Haaretz: “The difference is that Jews were killed because they were Jews. I’m just outraged about [President Alexander] Lukashenko trying to misappropriate the word ‘Holocaust.’”
It is estimated that 90 percent of Belarusian Jews, or some 800,000, were murdered during the war, including some at the hands of bloodthirsty collaborators such as Sawoniuk. Anderson, for one, isn’t expecting his and Hanson’s book to ever see the light of day in Minsk.
“I don’t think we’re gonna be very popular in Belarus,” he deadpans, recounting how, as part of his research, he visited the Belarusian embassy in London, where he met “a very sinister character.”
“I started talking about [the book] and he said, ‘No, no, no, no – these things didn’t happen; they’re all exaggerated,” he recalls. “Belarus – beautiful country!”
Doing the Nazis’ dirty work
The first of Anderson’s lucky breaks came with his choice of friends – one of whom, John Kelsey-Fry, just happened to be the junior prosecuting counsel in Sawoniuk’s trial. The two men would meet over a glass of wine to discuss the case as it proceeded in early 1999.
“I’ve always had an interest in the Holocaust,” says Anderson, who says he was aware of it from an early age because his headmaster’s wife had survived a concentration camp. (Many Britons of a similar age learned absolutely nothing about the Shoah in school, including your correspondent.)
That interest peaked with the Sawoniuk trial. It’s impossible not to believe Anderson was simply fated to tell this story, with help from Hanson. (While Hanson is a seasoned writer, Anderson’s day job is actually as a private banker at one of the world’s oldest banks, in London.)
A few years after Sawoniuk’s childhood friend Ben-Zion Blustein died in 2012, Anderson managed to track down the survivor’s descendants through Margalit Shlain, a historian in Tel Aviv. (She herself had written an important book in Hebrew about Blustein called “One of the ‘Sheep.”)
Anderson also struck pay dirt with a chance discovery: the trial papers.
Like with any good mystery, this one involves a dusty old trunk stored beneath a bed. To Anderson’s astonishment, the trunk contained the whole caboodle: “Every single word in the trial, all annotated by the judge’s handwriting, instructions to the jury, instructions to the judge, maps, photographs.” Or, as he sums up, “It always felt like gold came out of that trunk.”
Armed with the court manuscripts – having exhausted all other routes in searching for them – the two writers set to work in earnest while continuing to gather other key material, including other survivor’s testimonies and information from as many people as they could find connected to the events in Domachevo and the trial.
Hanson is clearly full of respect for his writing partner’s persistence. “You know, great story that it is, if I’d been researching it for 12 years, at some point I would have probably gone ‘I surrender, I can’t do this anymore,’ he says. Mike kept at it and he found a lot of those sources.”
“Others came by chance,” he relays. “I went wandering around London Bridge Station, just on the off-chance, to talk to any elderly looking employee I could find there – and eventually found a guy who’d been Sawoniuk’s supervisor when he worked at London Bridge. He gave us that rather vivid description of what a morose and surly character Sawoniuk was.”
Sawoniuk was one of the Schutzmänner who willingly performed the tasks even the Nazis occasionally refused: the Schmutzarbeit (dirty work) like shooting Jewish children. So, there was no little irony in the fact that his fate was partly sealed by the testimony of Alexandre Baglay, a Belarusian who was only 12 when he saw Sawoniuk murder two middle-aged Jewish men and a young woman at the end of the “Road of Death” in Domachevo.
Another irony of the case was that the most dramatic testimony – that of Ben-Zion Blustein, recounting the massacre of the town’s Jews – was deemed too inconsistent when he was questioned in the witness box and at odds with his previous statements about Sawoniuk. Indeed, some of the book’s most painful moments come when he is put on the witness stand and given a “going-over” by defense counsel Clegg.
“It’s the great flaw in the adversarial system of justice, which in fact often doesn’t achieve justice because it’s not about establishing the truth: it’s about getting the result,” Hanson notes. “So, the defense strategy was quite clear: there were key witnesses they had to attack, like Blustein, if they were going to get their client off.”
Anderson adds that Blustein’s wife never wanted her husband to testify, fearing what would happen when he was placed in the witness box. “She said, ‘You go through this experience and it will kill you,’” he recalls. “And in fact, he was never the same after the trial. He found it extremely bruising, but he felt he wanted to see justice. I think you can only imagine how difficult it must have been to try and remember things that happened 60 years ago. And when you’re highly emotional about it, your whole family’s being killed, you’re bound to have a surfeit of emotions in a very clinical cross-examination.”
Yet despite the jury ultimately being told to disregard Blustein’s testimony when the murder count he was a witness to was dropped, that was clearly easier said than done. Clegg called it “some of the most emotive evidence that a jury has heard in any trial.”
Blustein’s wartime exploits were extraordinary in themselves. He joined partisans in the forests and had to prove himself to a mixed group of Belarusians, Russians and Poles, some of whom were barely less antisemitic than the Nazis. He also saved the life of a badly wounded young Jewish boy, Benni Kalina, who was among the handful of Domachevo Jews to survive (and would go on to become a lifelong friend of Ben-Zion’s in Israel).
For Anderson, Blustein remains the trial’s most significant witness. “He could give the perspective of the Jewish community and the Jewish genocide in his hometown, and that’s why it was so important,” he says. He adds that when the guilty verdict on two counts of murder was delivered, the judge himself referred back to Blustein’s comments as part of the reason for the conviction.
In a trial devoid of any evidence, relying solely on eyewitness accounts from nearly 60 years earlier, this post-trial observation by Clegg – as recounted by Hanson – seems the most likely: “The jury had probably decided that even if Sawoniuk hadn’t done the particular crimes he was being charged with, he’d done others anyway, so it was perfectly alright to find him guilty.”
The successful prosecution of Sawoniuk could have been the start of a new chapter in efforts to bring war criminals to justice in Britain. Instead, only after a month after the trial had concluded, the announcement came about the closure of the War Crimes Unit, which had housed 11 detectives at its peak. Yet it wasn’t because there were no other Nazis out there.
“There was an after-party at the end of the [Sawoniuk] trial in the Old Bailey where they had the police, barristers and solicitors and so on,” Anderson relays. “And one of the police was heard to say, ‘Well, of course, we have loads more perpetrators who we will continue to investigate – but the whole point is getting the evidence.’”
“But this is the thing,” Anderson says. “There was no evidence in the Sawoniuk trial. And the fact that there were other names? I mean, I don’t know whether there were cases that should still have been prosecuted, but still, they had names.”
Hanson adds: “It’s interesting, isn’t it, that this was the only case ever brought to a conclusion. And I think, speaking as a Briton, there are a couple of rather embarrassing things about it. The first is – that’s it, that was the one and only case, even though we know there were hundreds of Nazi collaborators who’d come to Britain in among the quarter of a million Poles who came here at the end of the war.
“And the other thing is the rather shabby financial aspect of it. It was clearly an expensive operation: it cost about 11.5 million pounds [$15.6 million] to prosecute this one trial. And I think [the verdict] was a sigh of relief: ‘Right, we’ve shown we’re willing to act against Nazis; we don’t have to do it again.’ I think that’s a bit of a blot on our history that is unfortunate, to say the least,” Hanson says.
He is much more positive about the book’s overarching message, though. “For me, it is an absolutely life-affirming story,” he says. “Perhaps I’m naive but I think it is: It’s a story of courage and the indomitable human spirit.”
Modern, not ancient, history
Toward the end of our interview, Anderson spends a few minutes explaining why the story was so important to him, and his motivations in wanting to tell it. He notes that as well as it being a uniquely British Holocaust story, with its Nazi war criminal hiding in plain sight for some 50 years – even receiving a gold watch for his 25 years’ service at British Rail – this story is set in modern-day London. “So, the point I’m really trying to make is to tell everyone, and especially young people, that the Holocaust happened in living memory” he stresses. “It didn’t happen in ancient history.”
His second motivation involved the Blusteins in Israel. “As I got to know them, [telling the story] suddenly became much more important to me because people think about the Holocaust as the story of 6 million dead souls. And it’s not a story – it’s 6 million stories. And I felt with this that I wanted to tell one of those 6 million stories, because the vast majority of them have been lost as families and communities were annihilated. And it was a great privilege to be able to do that with the support of the Blustein family, Margalit Shlain and many others.”
“The Ticket Collector from Belarus: An Extraordinary True Story of the Holocaust and Britain’s Only War Crimes Trial,” by Mike Anderson and Neil Hanson (Simon & Schuster), is out now.