Originally published in 1994, a year after the trial of accused war criminal Ivan Polyukhovich, David Bevan’s book has been republished to reach a new audience with forewords from both the Senior Counsel for the Defence and Senior Counsel for the DPP. Bevan’s role as a court reporter for Australia’s first war crime prosecution spanning from 1990 to 1993, has informed his account of the trial, yet he remains a narrator rather than a figure in his own retelling allowing rather than placing himself at the centre of the legal proceedings. He gives equal weight to both the prosecution and defence, although it seems as though despite his intentions Bevan, seems to sympathise with the prosecution as most Australians are wont to do.
A case beginning in the 1980’s, Adelaide resident, Ivan “Ivanechko” Polyukhovich was accused of a mass murder of Jewish citizens of in the village of Serniki, in German occupied Ukraine. Ukrainian himself, Polyukhovich worked under the Wehrmacht during 1942. He was arrested in Adelaide in 1990, four years after The Advertiser released his picture and name to the public and two years after Australia amended the War Crimes Amendment Bill. The next three years were fraught with court cases, appeals and witnesses travelling from Ukraine, Israel and Russia to testify against Polyukovich.
Despite there being forty years between the war crime and the trial, among the residents of Serniki there was a strong sentiment and cultural memory of Polyukhovich committing the murders. This truth was further uncovered by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) set up by the Federal Government.
Bevan writes a poignant and harrowing retelling of a tragedy especially when photographs of the victims sit side by side with witnesses’ court testimony. Over time, names have been lost to history but they are not altogether forgotten. The constant repetition of the court proceedings with the cross examination and constant objections really highlighted the gravity of the crimes and gave the audience a small glimpse into the horror of this massacre.
Human resilience is embedded through Bevan’s account with stories of pain and loss. He demonstrates the way war ripped apart families and communities through the isolated setting of a Ukrainian village.
Despite this, at times it felt as though I was trawling through court transcripts, hearing conflicting testimonies, with quotes from witnesses, descriptions of court video screening from SIU’s original interviews with witnesses and historians evidence. For someone without any legal training and little knowledge at times it became overwhelming and slightly confusing.
Bevan also has a view of the residents of Serniki as simple village folk, untouched by modernism and reluctant to adapt to modern life, unintentionally denigrating them as simpletons who come from “primitive place” focusing on the lack of “modern buildings” and population of “children and grey-haired peasants”.
Bevan writes a heartbreaking account of a village ravaged by war, relatively unknown by Australian history, despite our role in the trial of Polyukhovich. He has written a book that reveals an important part of Australian and South Australian legal history. Yet its legal jargon and the need to record every legal dispute caused it to drag.
Nonetheless it is a must read for those interested in Australian legal history and war crimes.
Words by Georgina Banfield