A BBC Shropshire reporter whose work prompted top German prosecutors to investigate a Telford pensioner for his alleged role in the Holocaust has been nominated for a top journalism award.
Nick Southall, who has been nominated for the 2018 British Journalism Awards, worked with Edgware-based Holocaust researcher Dr Stephen Ankier to resurrect the “cold file case” on Belarusian-raised Stanislaw Chrzanowski, who died last year.
Southall showed how Chrzanowski had been under investigation by Munich prosecutors for the wartime murder of 30 civilians in his home town of Slonim, becoming the first person in the UK to be investigated in Germany for his alleged role in the Second World War.
The investigation ended when Chrzanowski died aged 96, unaware that police were preparing to raid his house, but Southall’s reporting showed how German war crimes prosecutors had “extended their reach” with the case.
After establishing and corroborating evidence, Southall and Ankier were asked to pass their file to German prosecutors, who in turn asked a top German court if they had jurisdiction to investigate a British citizen for alleged crimes committed by someone fighting for the Nazis but without direct command responsibility. Judges ruled they could.
The ruling means anyone who served in a Nazi unit can now be prosecuted, regardless of their nationality, the nationality of their victims or where the crimes were committed – as long as there is an accusation of murder.
It took Southall two years to report on Chrzanowski, during which time he interviewed Chrzanowski’s stepson, John Kingston, who first alerted British police to concerns over his stepfather’s wartime role in the 1990s, based in part on stories Chrzanowski told Kingston when he was young.
Officers subsequently interviewed Chrzanowski at the time, after Kingston had journeyed to Belarus to interview residents of Slonim, but prosecutors decided there was insufficient evidence for the case to be brought to trial.
The post-war trial of Slonim commander Gerhard Erren in Hamburg in 1974 had shown how some auxiliaries took part in executions, so working with 20 researchers in several countries, Southall resurrected the case – to Kingston’s surprise – to find evidence of a link.
The breakthrough moment came when Ankier managed to secure from a source in Minsk the roster of 116 local auxillaries who worked with invading Nazi troops in Slonim, shooting civilians in the death pits. Chrzanowski’s name was on the list, despite him having always maintained he was “just a guard”.
Although the BBC did not find any direct evidence linking Chrzanowski to war crimes, Southall’s reporting nevertheless showed how “Germany has unfinished business when it comes to prosecuting Nazi collaborators”.
Speaking to Jewish News, Southall – who was nominated for the award by a 40-strong judging panel – said the “key question” was why the case hadn’t gone to trial in the 1990s, when there was fairly strong evidence.
“They even had eye-witness accounts gathered by the BBC’s former Home Affairs Correspondent Jon Silverman, which alleged Chrzanowski shot prisoners at the execution pits. That’s why I recruited Dr Stephen Ankier, to help me search for new evidence in previously closed archives in the former Soviet Union.”
He said the roster “was a key discovery, although it wasn’t definitive proof of war crimes,” adding: “We will never know the truth about Chrzanowski’s wartime role with the Nazis, but the fact the Federal Supreme court in Germany granted prosecutors permission to launch a criminal investigation against Chrzanowski, means investigators now have greater clarity on who they can prosecute.
“Time is running out for prosecutors, but the Chrzanowski case has given them their best chance of widening their net before it’s too late.”