Unearthing the Holocaust

In the wake of an Australian Nazi war crimes investigation, a massacre site at Serniki was excavated to uncover the archaeological and forensic evidence of a heinous crime. Explore the forensic evidence that was used, for the first time, in a trial of an alleged genocidal killer.

Mass Murder in Serniki Serniki collectionSydney Jewish Museum

Up to 5,000 Nazi war criminals found sanctuary in Australia

In 1988, after heated debate, the Australian parliament passed the War Crimes Amendment Act to bring them to justice. A Special Investigations Unit (SIU) was commissioned to examine war crime allegations and collect evidence.

Mass Murder in Serniki Serniki collectionSydney Jewish Museum

Of the 843 cases investigated, only three presented sufficient evidence to lay criminal charges and go to trial. First to be tried in 1991 was 75-year-old Ukrainian-born Ivan Polyukhovich, a resident of Adelaide.    

This former forest warden stood accused of participation in the liquidation of the small Jewish community of Serniki, a secluded village situated in the Pripjet marshes, where some 850 Jews were murdered in September 1942.  

Mass Murder in Serniki Locating the site of a mass grave (1990) by Hughes, DavidSydney Jewish Museum

The site of the mass grave, 1990

Serniki, in the north west corner of the Ukraine, is a landscape of forests and meadows, marshes and rivers. When the excavation for the Australian War Crimes Trial began in 1990, pine trees planted in 1961 covered the murder site on the outskirts of Serniki.

The sandy forest floor showed no traces of a mass grave. 

“It is daunting to stand in the area of a suspected mass grave. The soil looks undisturbed.  Grass, flowers and trees look the same everywhere.  Where do you start?” Professor Richard Wright.

A witness to the massacre, at the time a young boy, pointed out the location. Some 150 trees in three rows were removed to clear the area for excavation.

Mass Murder in Serniki Prof Richard Wright excavates the grave (1990) by Hughes, DavidSydney Jewish Museum

The excavation

The excavation team was headed by Professor Richard Wright and assisted by Ukrainian officials and soldiers. The team’s findings were recorded in diaries, reports, photographs and videos to present to the court.

Mass Murder in Serniki Prof Richard Wright (on right) surveys the excavation (1990) by Hughes, DavidSydney Jewish Museum

Professor Wright, seated on the right, surveys the evidence

The material evidence helped determine the precise date of the massacre, the killing technique employed, the number of victims, and their age, gender and final movements before death.

Mass Murder in Serniki Two skulls in the mass grave (1990) by Hughes, DavidSydney Jewish Museum

Slowly, the story emerged…

The Jews of Serniki were murdered in early September 1942, presumably on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. The German execution squad arrived shortly before lunch and left in the late afternoon.

With the help of local collaborators, the Jews were rounded up and brought to a pit 40 metres long and 5 metres wide on the outskirts of the village.

The victims were forced to lie face down on the floor of the pit, while marksmen at the edge of the pit targeted the heads of the victims. Other victims were clubbed to death. Corpses were stacked on top of each other in layers. Most were women and children.

There were few survivors from Serniki, and even fewer images portraying Jewish life in the village before the massacre. These are among the only known images of those murdered.

Mass Murder in Serniki Luba Botvinik (nee Kaz), unknown, 1942, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
Mass Murder in Serniki Luba’s daughter, Tzila Botvinik, unknown, 1942, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Ivan Polyukhovich was alleged to have murdered Tsalykha Kaz and all but one of her children, including Luba and her baby Tzila. Tsalykha’s eldest daughter Pepe Kaz carried these photographs as she escaped from Serniki shortly before the community was slaughtered. They were tendered by the prosecution in the case against Polyukhovich. Photographs courtesy of David Bevan, published in his book A Case to Answer: The story of Australia’s first European war crimes prosecution, Wakefield Press, 1994.

Mass Murder in Serniki Serniki collectionSydney Jewish Museum

Among the bullets and bones, personal items were found

Wright noted that in the middle of the grave the remains were different; there were fewer bullets and evidence that some were clubbed rather than shot. “These people had surviving bits of clothing, whereas the main mass of people at each end had been stripped before being shot.”

“We found items of clothing right through the filling of the grave, suggesting that people had picked through a pile of clothing, throwing in what was unwanted while the grave was being filled in.”

“Finding a cartridge case was a breakthrough. They are stamped with the place of manufacture in Germany and the date of manufacture, and the most recent one we found was dated to 1941. The killings must have taken place in or after 1941.”

Bottle and other glass fragments were excavated from the grave, most likely from schnapps bottles belonging to the perpetrators. German officers would have received extra food, cigarettes and a special ration of alcohol to make it easier for them to do their killing.

“Mixed up with the teenager were the bones of baby. Also two bakelite buttons of the sort a baby would have on a matinee jacket, a small blue glass button with a moulding that looked grotesquely like the face on a modern Smiley button, and a flat mother-of-pearl button…

It looked as though these children had not been stripped of their clothing.” Sonia Wright, extract from her diary, 20 June 1990.

Mass Murder in Serniki Sonia Wright's diary (1990) by Wright, SoniaSydney Jewish Museum

Diary handwritten by Sonia Wright in the Ukraine, 1990

Sonia Wright was a member of the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists. She accompanied her husband, Professor Richard Wright, on numerous archaeological investigations from Jordan to the Ukraine, but Serniki was their first mass grave from the Holocaust.

Mass Murder in Serniki Extract from Sonia Wright's diary (1990) by Wright, SoniaSydney Jewish Museum

The diary not only describes in great detail the day by day unearthing of the Holocaust but also articulates her emotions at seeing the hundreds of bodies of Jewish men, women and children lying in the grave.

"Another grisly day bent over black corpses… Many of them still have hair plaited in a variety of styles. It gives them personality, which makes the job harder. I feel I am invading their privacy poking around at the sand around the pelvic bones. I sometimes mutter 'excuse me'…"

"I uncovered a particularly distressing site today, it is a woman with her arms protecting the head of a little girl lying alongside her.  I had to tell myself not to think about it, and to just get on with the job."

Mass Murder in Serniki Watch that StoppedSydney Jewish Museum

Sonia recorded the finding of a watch in her diary...

"News comes that the soldiers have found something… a silver pocket watch secreted in the toes of a boot. It stopped at 8.15… Did it go on ticking after the killing was over and all else was silent? I am glad that its owner succeeded in deceiving the killers." 14 June 1990.

The artefacts and photographs collected by the SIU in Serniki were used as forensic evidence in the Polyukhovich Trial, which began in Adelaide in March 1993. Despite the material evidence of the massacre, the testimonies against Ivan Polyukhovich were not sufficient for conviction. On 18 May 1993, the jury took less than an hour to find him not guilty.

All nations are obliged to trace, charge or extradite perpetrators of genocide. Questions remain as to whether Australia has so far met its obligations.

The experience gained in investigating Serniki has, however, had far-reaching implications. Before Serniki, no other mass grave from the Holocaust had been excavated for evidentiary purposes. Members of the SIU continued their work at the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, where the methods they pioneered were used to prosecute perpetrators of genocide in former Yugoslavia.

Want to investigate further?

Mass Murder in Serniki Rubber Shoe, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
Mass Murder in Serniki Schnapps Bottle, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Explore other items excavated from Serniki in the Sydney Jewish Museum collection on Google Arts and Culture or delve into our complete online catalogue.

Credits: Story

Photography: David Hughes, Special Investigations Unit in Serniki
Historian: Professor Konrad Kwiet, Resident Historian Sydney Jewish Museum
Curator: Erin Ramsay

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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