In 1990, in the course of an Australian Nazi war crimes investigation, a mass gravesite at Serniki was excavated to reveal the archaeological and forensic evidence of this heinous crime. A team from Australia’s Special Investigations Unit, headed by Professor Richard Wright, and assisted by Ukrainian officials and soldiers, undertook the task of ‘Unearthing the Holocaust’. Villagers pointed out the location of the killing field. It had remained undisturbed under a pine forest planted in the early 1960s.
Serniki, in the north west corner of the Ukraine, is in the heart of Polesie, a landscape of forests and meadows, marshes and rivers. Some 3 000 people lived in this secluded village, half of them Orthodox Jews. The first Germans arriving in early August 1941, belonged to the infamous SS Cavalry Brigade which had been trusted with cleansing the Pripjet marshes of Jews, Bolshevists and other ‘hostile elements’.
By the summer of 1942 efforts were being made to declare Polesie Judenfrei(free of Jews). In a radius of 75 kilometres around Serniki a wave ofJudenaktionen (actions against Jews) wiped out all rural and urban communities.
The Jews of Serniki were murdered in one day in early September 1942. The Jews were rounded up and brought to a pit 40 metres long and 5 metres wide on the outskirts of the village. They 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 wereclubbed to death. A number of Jews escaped the slaughter by fleeing into the forests. Those who were later found were shot. Altogether, about 850 men, women and children were massacred. Rubber overshoes removed from feet of remains labelled No.00071. Shoes can be used as forensic evidence as they provide manufacturing details which can identify time and place of manufacture.