Serniki mass grave headstone – December 1992 (photo taken by author)

Between 1987 and 1993 the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) carried out investigations into allegations that Nazi collaborators and mass killers had migrated Australia following the end of the Second World War. During those investigations the SIU undertook the exhumation of the human remains of Jewish victims who were executed in the summer of 1942 and buried in three mass graves in Ukraine.

The first of those mass grave exhumations took place in the summer of 1990 by forensic members of the SIU, in collaboration with officials of the Soviet Union. The SIU team was led by an expert archaeologist, Prof. Richard Wright. The exhumation, together with two others carried out in 1991, were undertaken to gather evidence in relation to three persons charged by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions with war crimes as a result of the SIU’s investigations. These exhumations were the first to be undertaken by any modern Western war crimes investigation unit.

Ivan Polyukhovich was the first of those three persons to be indicted. The accused, who lived in Adelaide, South Australia, was charged in January 1990 in relation to his involvement in the mass murder of the Jews who lived in the Ukrainian village of Serniki, along with other crimes.

The SIU exhumation was carried out under difficult circumstances. When the executions occurred in 1942, the mass grave had been dug in an open field. Some years after this mass killing, a pine forest had been planted in the field. When the SIU investigators first arrived in Serniki in December 1989, we were told the mass grave was located within the forest, although there were no physical signs indicating the existence of a mass grave.

The site of the Serniki mass grave site – December 1989 (photo taken by author)

The SIU’s investigations suggested the exact location of the grave. Towards the middle of January 1990 a preliminary examination of the site by the Ukrainian authorities confirmed the existence of human remains being buried in the forest. Within a matter of days of that revelation, Polyukhovich was charged in Adelaide with war crimes.

The photos below were taken (by the author) during the SIU’s investigations in the rural village of Serniki in December 1989. They depict the living conditions of the local inhabitants, who lived off the land. They did not enjoy the luxuries of many modern communities yet they lived happy lives.

The SIU then took steps to assemble a team of forensic experts, led by Prof Wright, who were tasked with undertaking the exhumation at the Serniki mass grave in June/July 1990.

The following photograph depicts a member of the SIU’s forensic team (Bert Bailey, in the blue overalls, affectionately named ‘Bertie’) counting the dead bodies buried in the Serniki mass grave. The team laid white tape along the grave site, at one metre intervals, to assist in counting the dead bodies.

During the course of the Serniki exhumation, the SIU forensic team counted 553 bodies and was able to determine the victim’s age at death, their sex, and cause of death. The team recovered dozens of 9 mm bullet cases which were later identified as being of German manufacture, the most recent of which was date stamped 1941. This particular piece of evidence confirmed the mass grave was the result of the murders committed by the Nazis and not those of Soviet Stalin. The team also recovered various clothing and artifacts from the grave, including an artificial leg. The work of the team was a total success and provided irrefutable forensic evidence relating to the mass murder of the Jews of Serniki by the Nazis in 1942. None of this compelling forensic evidence was challenged during the subsequent court proceedings before the courts in Adelaide.

The Serniki mass grave –  photo taken by the author in December 1992, 3 years after the exhumation.

Similar positive results were obtained by the SIU forensic team, again led by Prof. Wright, during the mass grave exhumations undertaken during the summer of 1991 in the Ukrainian towns of Izraylovka near Ustinovka (in the case involving Henrich Wager) and Gnivan (Nikolai Berezovsky).

When the SIU finally closed its doors in January 1994, I decided (as the Unit’s Director) that it was appropriate to donate the photos taken during the exhumation of the Jewish victims, and some of items recovered by the SIU’s forensic team from the mass graves in Ukraine, to the Sydney Jewish Museum.

The handing over of this evidence and material to the Museum occurred in January 1994 and the ceremony was officiated by the Federal Justice Minister.

What follows is the Minister’s address to the audience at the Museum during the ceremony.




                   FRIDAY 14 JANUARY 1994

“It is now almost seven (7) years since the Government established the Special Investigations Unit, in early 1987, to investigate war crimes allegations and to gather evidence to enable war crimes trials to be prosecuted in Australia.

Hand in hand with the establishment of the Special Investigations Unit the Government introduced in 1987 amendments to the War Crimes Act of 1945 to allow the prosecution in the Australian criminal courts of war crimes allegedly committed in Europe during the Second World War.  These amendments came into force on 25 January 1989.  Despite a subsequent challenge the High Court of Australia upheld the constitutional validity of the amendments.


The Special Investigations Unit commenced operations under the directorship of Robert Greenwood QC on 11 May 1987.

The Unit undertook its tasks with its primary goal being to conduct fair and even handed investigations which were aimed at establishing the truth behind the allegations, relying on real evidence and not rumour or suspicion, and being mindful of the possibility of false or malicious claims and the irreparable harm that could be occasioned both to a free society and innocent individuals unless the investigations were undertaken with integrity.

The Unit ultimately became an experienced and unique investigative body with an unusual collection of specialised skills, including investigators, lawyers, historians, translators and researchers all of whom were supported by a dedicated team of support personnel.

During the course of the Unit’s investigations Mr Greenwood informed the Government that he expected that the investigations would be completed by June 1992.  The Government accordingly decided that the Special Investigations Unit would be wound up and that further funding for the investigation of war crimes allegations would not be available beyond 30 June 1992.

In April 1991 Mr Greenwood returned to practice at the Bar and his then Deputy, Mr Graham Blewitt, took over as Director of the Special Investigations Unit.

During the latter stages of 1991 and in early 1992 it became obvious that although the Unit would not be undertaking any further war crimes investigations beyond June 1992, there was nevertheless important work still required in relation to the war crimes prosecutions that would continue beyond that date.  Accordingly the Government decided that the relevant staff of the Special Investigations Unit would be available to assist the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions in such prosecutions and the War Crimes Prosecution Support Unit was established to complete that task. 

The War Crimes Prosecution Support Unit under the directorship of Mr Blewitt commenced operations on 1 July 1992 and assisted the DPP in relation to the three prosecutions that had been launched under the War Crimes Act.


During its life the War Crimes Unit completed investigations into allegations against 841 individuals.

Although ultimately only three people were charged under the War Crimes Act and through sheer coincidence those three came from South Australia, it is worth noting that on a State by State break up there were 194 people investigated in Victoria, 161 in New South Wales, 87 in South Australia, 35 in Western Australia, 33 in Queensland, 17 in Tasmania, 13 in the Australian Capital Territory and one in the Northern Territory.

Each of the allegations was thoroughly investigated by the War Crimes Unit which established that in 261 cases the suspect was deceased, some of whom died during the course of the investigations.

In 191 cases the allegation could not be substantiated, mainly due to the lack of available evidence but in 38 cases the Unit was able to establish on the available evidence that the original allegation was false.

In the case of 27 individuals under investigation the Unit was satisfied that there was substance to the allegations but despite a thorough and exhaustive inquiry in each case it was not possible to obtain sufficient evidence to support a prosecution in the criminal courts.

The remaining matters under investigation were suspended by the Unit for various reasons including 247 instances where the person against whom allegation had been made, could not be located in Australia despite concentrated efforts.

The investigations themselves were most difficult and it was recognised from the start by the Government that the task of investigating World War II war crimes allegations was never going to be easy.  Notwithstanding these difficulties the War Crimes Unit in many ways led the way for the other war crimes units of other countries.

The members of Special Investigation Unit never allowed personal discomfort or inconvenience distract them from their duties, which they took very seriously.  They often had to endure the rigours of harsh European winters whilst lugging equipment over hundreds of snow covered kilometres to interview potential witnesses in remote villages.

Through their professional approach to the investigations and their dedication to their duties the Unit’s members acquired the admiration and respect of their counterparts in other countries.  This was particularly true of the former Soviet Union where the bulk of the inquiries were undertaken.

The level of such co-operation is reflected in the number of witnesses to travel to Australia to give evidence in Adelaide; the degree to which the Unit was given access to former Soviet Archives and in particular, which is relevant to why we are here today, by allowing the Unit to exhume the bodies of the victims of the mass killings which were the subject of the war crimes charges in Australia.


It is now common knowledge that three persons were charged under the War Crimes Act in this country.

The first was Ivan Polyukhovich who was charged on 25 January 1990, that is twelve months after the amendments to the War Crimes Act came into force, with nine offences against the Act.

Those charges related to the killing of Jews in and around the village of Serniki in north western Ukraine in or about the months of August or September 1942.  The main charge related to his alleged involvement in the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Serniki when about 850 men, women and children were shot and buried in a mass grave.

Members of the Unit had travelled to Rovno in Ukraine in November 1989 and carried out investigations there and in Serniki through to the end of December that year.  When the evidence was represented to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions in early January 1990 with a recommendation that charges be laid against Mr Polyukhovich, a decision was made to request the Soviet Officials in Moscow and Ukraine to carry out a preliminary exploration of the site of the alleged mass grave with a view firstly of corroborating the evidence of the eye witnesses as to the existence of the mass grave and secondly to help determine whether it would be feasible to exhume the bodies.

Within days of the request emanating from the Unit the Ukrainian officials confirmed that they had sunk a small hole on the site of the mass grave and human remains were detected.

In the months that followed, the Unit engaged a number of Australian experts for the purpose of travelling to Serniki to exhume the bodies of the Jewish victims buried in the mass grave.  These experts included archaeologists, forensic scientists and police scientific experts.  The purpose of the exhumation was to confirm the presence of the mass grave and to determine the number of victims, their sex, age and manner of death.

During the period 13 June and 15 July 1990 the Unit’s exhumation team undertook the task of exhuming the bodies of the victims.  When the killings occurred in 1942 the site of the mass grave was in a field.  Some years later a pine forest was planted in the area.  The first task of the exhumation team was to determine the boundaries of the grave and then to clear the area of trees.  This was accomplished with the assistance of members of the Soviet army.  Eventually the grave was fully excavated and the bodies of some 553 people exposed.

An examination of the skeletal remains revealed that the majority of the victims, 405, were females, 63 of whom were aged under 9 years and 134 of whom were aged between 10 and 19 years.  In all there were 96 children under the age of 10 and 48 elderly people over the age of 60.  It was established that 410 of the victims had been killed by a bullet wound to the head.

The police scientific officer attached to the exhumation team photographed the progress of the exhumation using both video and still cameras.  The resulting photographs and video tapes form part of the material which is being presented to the Museum today.

During the course of the exhumation the team located and recovered various articles, including spent ammunition cases, small items of jewellery and particles of clothing and footwear which are also being presented today.

At the conclusion of the exhumation teams work in Serniki the Unit arranged for the remains of the Jewish victims to be re-interred in a ceremony conducted by a visiting American Rabbi.  Some months after the local citizens of Serniki erected a monument on the site of the mass grave to commemorate the fate of their former friends and neighbours.

From a forensic point of view the exhumation of the Serniki mass grave was outstanding in terms of obtaining important and substantial corroborating evidence.


During June and July 1991 the Unit’s exhumation team carried out similar exhumations near the former Ukrainian village of Israelovka in the Kirovograd Region and also in Gnivan in the Vinnitsa Region in relation to the Unit’s other two prosecutions, namely Heinrich Wagner and Mikolay Berezovsky respectively, both of whom were charged by the Unit on 5 September 1991.

In the case of the Israelovka exhumation the team uncovered the bodies of about 104 adults and 19 children whom witnesses had described as the Jews of the village of Israelovka who had been killed during the summer of 1942.  The children were aged between 6 months and 10 years and had been shot although some had depressed fractures of the skull.  The charges against the man Wagner related to his involvement in these killings and in particular to the alleged murder of one of the children.

In the case of the other exhumation, the team uncovered the bodies of 102 people who were described by witnesses as the Jews of Gnivan and who had also been killed in about the summer of 1942.  At least 64 of the victims were female and there were at least 23 children under the age of 10.  It was established that at least 80 of the victims died due to a bullet to the head.

The exhumation team kept a photographic record of their work and photographs and video tapes relating to the Gnivan execution are included in the material presented to the Museum today.  Similar material in relation to the recently concluded Wagner matter will be presented to the Museum in the near future.


It could be said that after some six and a half years of investigations, the expenditure of over seventeen million dollars, the fact that only 3 people were charged by the Unit under the War Crimes Act and that none of these resulted in a conviction, that the Government’s war crimes initiative was a waste of resources, particularly during the latter years when the country was hard hit by the world wide recession.  Indeed there has already been a lot of comment in the media along these lines.

Whilst such things can be said, to do so ignores some fundamental issues.

First of all there was great public concern in 1986 about the fact that war criminals had sought haven in this country and the Government would have been irresponsible to ignore the issue.  Something had to be done, not a mere token effort, but a realistic approach to the problem in a way that met the demands that justice be done.

Secondly, the cost of bringing criminals to justice has never been, nor should ever be, a reason for letting serious and major alleged crimes go un-investigated or criminals go unpunished if found guilty.  It cannot be said that allegations of mass murder should be ignored because of cost factors.

Further it was never going to be easy to investigate crimes committed during the early 1940’s on the other side of the world.  Evidence that may once have existed would have vanished or have been destroyed, particularly as potential witnesses would have died or were otherwise lost through illness or advanced age.  The requirement to produce witnesses in Australia was another barrier.  Locating witnesses who had scattered throughout the world was a problem.  The majority of witnesses could not speak English so that the language barrier, in conjunction with cultural differences, was a further problem.  The Unit’s experience was that the task was one of the most difficult criminal investigations undertaken in this country.  Not only that, the Unit undertook over 840 separate investigations in just over six years.

Notwithstanding the problems and the difficulty of the task, the War Crimes Unit undertook its role professionally and diligently.  Its professionalism is reflected in the lack of any major controversy in relation to the manner in which it carried out its investigations.

Not many people really believed that any person would ever be charged with war crimes as a result of the Unit’s investigations let alone that any case would ever reach the stage of a jury trial.

There were several other cases that would have resulted in charged being laid, but were abandoned because the person under investigation died.

It is my belief that had action been taken decades earlier, the results might have been very different.


The War Crimes Unit’s work has now been completed and Mr Blewitt and his remaining staff are currently preparing for the transfer of the investigative files and other material to the Australian Archives.

It is however considered appropriate that an exception be made in relation to some of the material, namely that relating specifically to the exhumation of the Jewish victims who had been murdered and buried in the mass graves in Serniki, Israelovka and Gnivan.

It is my pleasure to now present to the Sydney Jewish Museum on behalf of the Government and the War Crimes Unit, copies of the Unit’s photographic material relating to the exhumations and various artifacts from the mass graves.

It bears reflecting that the horrors of the Holocaust should never be forgotten.  It is important for everyone to be aware of mankind’s ability, even as supposedly civilised beings, to inflict inhuman suffering and death on our fellow human beings.  The work of the Sydney Jewish Museum in educating future generations in this regard is of great importance and significance.  The Government recognises this and hopes that the tragic but important material presented to the Museum today will assist that education process.”

End of address.

I am very proud of the achievements of the work undertaken by the SIU and the forensic teams. The experience gained and the expertise developed during the process was successfully utilised by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia when the time came to exhume the bodies buried in mass graves in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Prof Wright also played an important part in some of those exhumations.

The work of the SIU is to be memorialised in a forthcoming book which I hope will be published during 2024. The book consists of the recollections and accounts by many surviving participants involved in the work of the SIU, including investigators, historians, prosecutors and defence lawyers. I have collected and edited the contributions of over sixteen former colleagues, including Prof. Wright. I believe it will be a compelling and historically important book. I will announce on this website when the book is published.

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