PERSPECTIVES: Last Nazi standing


And then there was one.  

Seventy years after the end of World War II, Helmut Oberlander bears the dubious distinction of being the last of Canada’s all-too-few cases from that era to be resolved. He is the last Nazi standing.

It was 30 years ago that then-prime minister Brian Mulroney established the Deschênes Commission to investigate the presence in Canada of perpetrators of Nazi war crimes and their collaborators. While no punishment could ever be commensurate with the magnitude of their heinous crimes, Justice Jules Deschênes understood that such actions were necessary both as a matter of fundamental justice and to protect the integrity of Canadian citizenship. 

Were he alive today, Deschênes would be profoundly disappointed by how little was accomplished on these cases. In particular, one mechanism that he put forward, denaturalization and deportation, has been a spectacular failure.  

Jan. 27 marked 20 years since  the federal  government informed Oberlander that it intended to revoke his citizenship, because of his “false representations or fraud or by knowingly concealing material circumstances in that you failed to divulge to Canadian Immigration and Citizenship officials your membership in the German Sicherheitspolizei und SD and Einsatzkommando 10A [EK 10A] during the Second World War and your participation in the executions of civilians during that period of time”.

Because the granting of citizenship is a civil act, its revocation is as well, and the burden on the Crown was not to prove that Oberlander had committed war crimes or crimes against humanity, but that he had lied upon entering Canada and obtained his citizenship fraudulently. They did so, but Oberlander, who cheated his way into Canada, has continued to enjoy with impunity the privilege of our citizenship for decades.

Failure to disclose his involvement as a translator with Einsatzkommando 10A, one of the most notorious of the Nazi mobile killing squads that cut a murderous swath through eastern Europe killing thousands of Jews and other innocent civilians, should have been sufficient to close the deal on his denaturalization and deportation. One Federal Court decision made the point unassailably clear:  As a member of EK 10a Oberlander could not have been unaware of the function of the unit.  “Its purposes,” the Court said, “he served.”

In fact, translators were critical cogs in the Einsatzgruppen machinery of murder. One can hear the echoes of their voices as they rounded up human targets with local informers and collaborators: (“How many Jews were in this village?  Where would they be apt to hide?”); assisted with interrogations (“Where are the others? Do they have weapons?”); and ordered victims to places of execution while maintaining the German obsession over control and order (“Line up over there in front of that ditch.  Remove your clothing.  Be silent.”)  

After the war, surviving Einsatzgruppen killers acknowledged that auxiliary members of the units like Oberlander were critical to the lethal success of their efforts.  They were, in essence, Hitler’s elite enablers.

Last month, the Federal Court upheld the most recent attempt to denaturalize him but Oberlander has indicated that he will appeal that decision. 

For decades after the war, successive Canadian governments were indifferent to the presence of Nazi war criminals and enablers in Canada and justified their inaction with the convenient fiction that no remedies existed to resolve these cases.  Once cases were finally launched, a great deal of delay was court-driven. 

Oberlander’s supporters have variously claimed that he has not received sufficient due process or that his Charter-guaranteed legal protection was violated.  In fact, the precise opposite is true and Jewish advocacy strove to make the case that due process had to be commensurate with the urgency of natural justice, especially since too many other accused Nazis had died in mid-course. 

Instead, Canadian courts often thwarted justice on the Oberlander file and were complicit in the unconscionable delays that have made his case a never-ending story. Over the two-decade history of Oberlander’s case, Canadian courts routinely permitted lengthy continuances; took years to deliver decisions under reserve; allowed layers of appeals at every level and accepted and reviewed ungrounded legal and constitutional applications.  In one instance, the Court partly based its decision on an argument that Oberlander himself had not seen fit to raise in his own defence.  

Meanwhile, Jewish organizations fought a rearguard action in the court of public opinion.  

To counter claims that we were seeking vengeance, we pointed out that these cases involved the pursuit of justice against those involved in the most heinous crimes in human history for which there were no statutes of limitations. To those upset that he had never been charged with committing war crimes, we offered the counter view that such civil cases as Oberlander’s served to protect the integrity of precious Canadian citizenship from fraud and misrepresentation. They also provided the moral authority and judicial precedents to help ensure that Canada not be seen as a haven for war criminals and genocidaires.  

To those calling for clemency or consideration for Oberlander’s advanced years and model behaviour while in Canada we argued that neither the duration of an individual’s residence in Canada nor the goodness of his conduct since landing should preclude denaturalization and deportation where warranted. Our mantra was that “longevity should not be rewarded” and we implored opponents of these cases not to blinker their focus on the aged and feeble men in the docket but to cast their minds back to when the accused were young and hale and acting as cogs in genocide.

Sadly, Oberlander will probably die in Canada. One day when the full story of Canada’s poor record of dealing with Nazi war criminals and their enablers in our midst is written, there will be some heroes but mostly shame enough to go around. 

Bernie Farber and Eric Vernon worked on the Helmut Oberlander case and other Nazi war crimes cases for over two decades along with their Canadian Jewish Congress colleague Len Rudner.