Helmut Oberlander was born in Ukraine in 1924 to ethnic German parents. He left Ukraine during WWII and immigrated to Canada in 1954 with his wife Margaret. He lived (and still lives) in my hometown of Kitchener, Ontario, where he ran a successful construction business. He attained Canadian citizenship in 1960.
After forty-six years of living in Canada, the Canadian government, in an initiative to remove suspected war criminals from Canada, began a process of denaturalization and deportation against Mr. Oberlander, who was 71 years old at the time (1995). Over the years, his case was debated, attracting national media attention, and his citizenship being revoked and reinstated (reinstated in 2009).
The reasoning behind this debate? During WWII, Ukraine’s story is not much different from Latvia’s. The Nazi’s pushed the Soviets east through Ukraine in 1941. As they invaded his village, 17-year-old Helmut Oberlander was recognized by a Nazi unit (Einsatzgruppen D, Special Detachment 10a) as someone who could speak both Russian and German, and they forcibly conscripted him to use as an interpreter. This unit just happened to be a particularly well-known mobile death squad, responsible for the mass murders of tens of thousands of Jewish, Sinti and Roma people.
Mr. Oberlander has maintained that his duties within this unit were strictly non-violent (consisting of listening to intercepted Russian radio communications, acting as an interpreter between occupying German forces and the local population, and guarding supplies). However, captured Nazi documents do disclose that he was awarded a second-class service cross in January 1943 for his role in the Einsatzgruppen. Later that same year, his unit was dismantled and absorbed into the German army. When Germany was defeated, Oberlander became a British POW. Presumably he became a displaced person after that, and he reunited with his family in Germany near Stuttgart in 1947. In Stuttgart, he married his wife and worked as an apprentice bricklayer, studying construction engineering.
He and his wife applied to immigrate to Canada in 1953. Part of the immigration approval process was an interview in which many questions were asked, but did not inquire about past military service.
In April 2012, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (a Jewish human rights organization in Los Angeles) named Oberlander as one of their top 10 “Most Wanted” Nazi war criminals. Oberlander wound up on the list after 3 others died of old age, bumping him into the top 10. They hope to deport Mr. Oberlander to Germany where in 2011, a man with a similar story named Ivan Demjanjuk was convicted without any evidence of a specific crime.
I’m no WWII or human rights laws expert, but… the man was a teenager when the Nazi’s pretty much said “do this or die”. They took him from his home, to which he never returned again. In my eyes, he is another kind of victim of the Nazi regime. It was an absolutely terrifying time in our human history. Everyone in Europe did what they had to do to survive the Nazi and Soviet terrors of the WWII era. Jews, Germans, Latvians, Ukrainians, Roma, Catholics, Lutherans. You did what you had to do to survive. If the Soviets or Nazi’s knocked on your door, put a gun in your face and said “You and your family, or the family next door”, not a soul, regardless of colour or creed, would have said “no, please, take us instead”. It’s been 58 years since he came to Canada, and 69 years since his Einsatzgruppen unit was disbanded. Likely, no one is still be alive to be able to testify for or against him in court.
On one hand, I fully agree with the views of the Simon Wiesenthal Center – what happened should never be forgotten, and the masterminds in charge or anyone who willfully committed atrocious acts of genocide should definitely be brought to cold, hard justice but… Where do you draw the line?
Is attempting to have someone convicted of either murder or accessory to murder with absolutely no evidence really justice served? …Really?
Trying to imagine my own family in the position of the Jewish people during WWII is obviously not very hard. The Soviets were the mass murderers of my Latvian ancestors. If there was a man still alive today who was a Russian engineer and he was ordered to drive one of the trains that pulled the cattle cars full of Latvian deportees (my own great-great uncle and family as an example) to their doom in Siberian Gulags… would I really want him persecuted today? Did the engineer really have a choice? What if he had said “no, I won’t drive this train”… Would he have been shot? What would I have done in his shoes?
Would I want this engineer persecuted now, a lifetime later?? …Stalin, yes. His top ministers, generals, advisors? Yes. (although really, if you were Stalin’s top general and he said “I want to kill a bunch of Latvians so we can better control their country, what do you think?” If you said “that’s a terrible idea and I am going to stop you!!” You were probably going to be killed on the spot). So, the engineer… would probably be best left alone, as an elderly man who has seen too much and suffered enough.
What do you think?