An array of prosecution witnesses, called to the witness stand or presented on videotape by the U.S. Department of Justice, offered evidence last week designed to prove that Wolodymir Osidach played a direct role in the persecution of Jews in the Ukrainian village of Rawo Ruska, it was reported by David Gross, news editor of the Jewish Exponent. Gross’ report was compiled with the daily courtroom aid of Marc Sugarman and Elaine Goodman, staff editorial interns.
By the end of last week the U.S. was completing its denaturalization case against the alleged Nazi collaborator before Federal District Court Judge Louis Bechtle here. Should prosecutor Neal Sher, deputy director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, prove that Osidach lied in order to gain entry into this country – and again to become a U.S. citizen – the 76-year-old Ukrainian will be denaturalized and could face deportation proceedings.
Still to come is the case for the defense, as attorney Louis Konowal continued his effort to downplay Osidach’s role in the Ukrainian Police hierarchy. Konowal hoped to separate Osidach from anti-Jewish actions in Rawa Ruska. Osidach, Konowal argued during his opening statement, is a victim of Soviet harassment directed against him because of his anti-Communist efforts as a member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.
CONCEDES HE LIED
In a crowded courtroom simmering with tension between the local Jewish and Ukrainian communities, Osidach himself, during direct testimony, conceded that he had lied on his visa and citizenship applications when he said that he was a “dairy technician” in Rawa Ruska during the Nazi occupation. He admitted his membership in the Ukrainian Police and agreed that his rank had been “hauptwachmann” – a term the prosecution translated as “chief of police,” but which Osidach insisted meant “corporal.”
Osidach also admitted that atrocities against the 3,000 Jews of Rawa Ruska, including mass murders, had taken place. He insisted repeatedly, however, that the Ukrainian police had played no part in them. Only the Germans, be maintained, entered the Rawa Ruska ghetto. The Ukrainian police, he testified under oath, were forbidden entry on pain of death by the Gestapo.
Osidach specifically denied that Ukrainian police herded Jews to the cattle cars which carried them to the gas chambers at Belzec 18 miles away. From the police station, he swore, he would see Germans guarding large groups of Jews enroute to the railroad station. Where those Jews were going, he maintained, he had no idea.
PARADE OF GOVERNMENT WITNESSES
A long parade of government witnesses – some videotaped in the Soviet Union, the first time such testimony has been admitted as evidence in an American court – provided a different version of events in Nazi occupied Rawa Ruska. They recalled overcrowding and disease, hunger and violent death.
“I was only eight feet from Osidach when he arrested my brother,” testified Ida Rybitwer, a Rawa Ruska native who now lives in a suburbs of Toronto. “Osidach had a rifle. He was in a police uniform, navy blue. I never saw my brother again.” Mrs. Rybitwer survived the war because a gentile woman hid her and provided her with a false Polish birth certificate.
Kurt Lewin, another Holocaust survivor, was also in Rawa Ruska during the war. He testified that he saw Osidach in the Rawa Ruska ghetto. He knew who Osidach was, he said, because he had been specifically warned to steer clear of “Mr. Osidach, the commander of the Ukrainian police.” He also saw Osidach’s name on posters proclaiming Jewish regulations.
After the Germans were driven out in 1944, Lewin recounted, he returned to Rawa Ruska for a week. Of a 1942 population of 10,000 to 12,000 Jews, he sadly observed, only 10 remained. He had survived, Lewin stated, because he had been hidden by a Ukrainian farmer.
ROLE OF UKRAINIAN POLICE
Philip Langer, now of Tampa, Fla., also directly contradicted Osidach’s testimony by stating that Ukrainian police brutally oppressed Rawa Ruska’s Jewish population. He himself witnessed shootings, he said. He also testified that he saw Osidach directing a roundup of Jews in 1942.
Langer stressed that Ukrainian police were responsible for enforcing the Nazi laws relating to Jews. For example, Ukrainian police stood guard as he and other Jews were forced to destroy headstones in the Jewish cemetery with sledgehammers. The rubble was used to pave roods.
Abraham Weinfeld, now of New York, a pharmacist, also lived in Rawa Ruska under the Germans – in a two-room apartment with 17 other Jews. He also worked in the Jewish cemetery, turning headstones into gravel under the watchful eye of the Ukrainian police, who “yelled and beat us with whips.”
Weinfeld also observed two mass roundups in the ghetto from the pharmacy in which he was working. He heard the shots and saw the flames of burning buildings and the dead bodies lying in the street. He saw the Germans and the Ukrainian police going from house to house pulling people out.
STORY TOLD TO HUSHED COURT
Shlomo Altschuler, now of Holon, Israel, told his story to the hushed court through a Hebrew translator. Altschuler, in a deposition taken in Israel, had previously identified Osidach as the Rawa Ruska’s Ukrainian police chief. While working at forced labor in a quarry, he testified, he lived with other slave laborers in a house directly behind the Ukrainian police station. Every morning, Altschuler saw the Ukrainian police line up in formation and receive their orders from an officer who stood in front of the line. That man, Altschuler said, was Osidach.
One time, Altschuler said, while coming back from work, he saw many SS troops and Ukrainian police gathering outside the ghetto. Knowing that a roundup was coming, Altschuler, his father, mother and two sisters hid. After two days in hiding, his father went out to see what had happened. He never returned.
Finally, their hideout under a floor was discovered by Ukrainian police and the remaining Altschulers were dragged into the street. SS and Ukrainian police marched them, along with some 100 other Jews, to the cemetery. They were separated – the healthy men on one side, the sick and old, the women and children, on the other. The women and children were taken away in crowded trucks, with Ukrainian police sitting on the backs and acting as guards. In a flat, emotionless voice, Altschuler stated that he heard shots and the trucks came back empty.
Other prosecution witnesses testified on videotape. As Justice Department officials explained, these witnesses were toped while being questioned in the Soviet Union with Soviet authorities present. The witnesses, all non-Jewish residents of Rawa Ruska, told of the destruction of the ghetto, the role of the Ukrainian police and of Osidach’s official activities.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.