British historian Stephen Ankier said military rosters, payment lists and other documents from Polish and German archives show retired coal miner Mychajlo Ostapenko, 88, had the rank of rifleman in the 31st Punitive Battalion, the Nazi SS-led unit responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Jewish and Polish civilians in the Holocaust.
Ostapenko told the UK’s Daily Mail that he was in the army for a short time, and didn’t kill anyone. Meanwhile, Ankier has passed his evidence onto Scotland Yard, which is responsible in the UK for investigating war crimes.
Ankier said: “These people ought to be held accountable for what they have done, even if it happened many years ago.”
The notorious 31st Punitive Battalion, also known as the Ukrainian Self-Defense League, was a volunteer unit responsible for murdering more than 100 prisoners in 1944 and destroying Polish village Chlaniow, killing 44 civilians, including five children.
The Daily Mail said he is thought to be one of the last veterans of the battalion still alive in Britain, following the death of 89-year-old Serhij Woronyj in a London hospital last year.
Ostapenko who was born in the Ukraine and now lives alone in Lancashire was married to a British woman and has two daughters. He was captured by Britain in 1945, placed in a PoW camp in Italy, and moved to the UK in 1947, gaining citizenship in 1956.
While the historian may have confirmed his involvement in the war, there was no evidence he took part in war crimes, the newspaper said.
Ostapenko confirmed he was in Poland during the war but said he never harmed civilians. He said: “I don’t know nothing about what was going on. I was in hospital in Poland for about nine months with appendicitis. Then I was at home. I was in an army but I never fought anyone. I haven’t done anything wrong. I haven’t killed anybody. I was in the Rimini camp. The British looked after us well. I can’t remember anything else. I’m sorry.”
Former Labour MP Andrew Dismore told The Daily Mail: “Even if people like Ostapenko were not directly involved in war crimes, they may have a great deal of first-hand knowledge. If they have a clear conscience, there is no reason why they should not co-operate.”