A Penny for Your Thoughts: Helmut Oberlander

 

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?

Ancestor Story: Janis Rudolfs Vinakmens, Part 2

As the Soviet army re-occupied Latvia and pushed back the Nazis in the latter half of the year 1944, the time came for many Latvians to flee, rather than face what the Soviet government had in store for them.  Janis, Emma and their two young children did just that.

I’m starting to think they must have met with Janis’ brother Karlis Vinakmens and his family, as the two families stuck together until 1947. Likely, Janis and company went west to Liepaja, where they were able to board a ship bound for the huge, German-controlled port of Gotenhafen. Karlis and co. spent from December 1944 to May 1945 at Gotenhafen, so it’s quite likely that Janis and family did as well. The two families next went to Hilburghausen, Germany for less than a month, then to Marburg, Germany in June of 1945, where it’s very likely that Janis was employed by the US Army as a labourer, as was his brother Karlis.

The ports of Liepaja and Gotenhafen, route of many Latvian refugees

After Marburg, the brothers and their families were separated. Janis and his family were sent to a place called Ludwigshohe, Darmstadt in Hesse, Germany, on October 21, 1946 while Karlis and co. were off to Belgium.  Here in Darmstadt, Janis and Emma’s third child was born in late 1946.

It’s possible that they were sent to one or two more camps before their time as refugees was over, but I do not have any record of that. The next record I have of Janis’ family is their ship’s passenger manifest. On August 14th, 1949, Janis, Emma and their three children sailed out of Bremerhaven, Germany aboard the SS General C.H. Muir bound for Elk Point, South Dakota, USA.

USS General C.H. Muir: http://chelli11.wordpress.com/2011/09/13/uss-general-c-h-muir/

Ship: USS General C.H. Muir

The USS General C. H. Muir was built in 1944 by Kaiser Co. Inc. in Richmond, California and named after U.S. Army General Charles Henry Muir.

She was a transport ship for the US Navy during WWII, then used by the US Coast Guard for a short period, then transferred to the US Army as USAT General C. H. Muir in 1946. On March 1, 1950 she was transferred to the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) as USNS General C. H. Muir (T-AP-142), transporting thousands of refugees of WWII to the Americas and Australia.  In late 1952, she carried reinforcements to the UN troops fighting in Korea. She made another similar voyage before being placed in the National Reserve Fleet in 1955. In 1968, the ship was sold and converted into a container vessel named the SS Chicago. In 1975, the American company that owned her sold her to Puerto Rico where she was renamed the SS San Juan. She operated until 1985 and was later scrapped.

The SS General CH Muir carried Janis Vinakmens, his wife and 3 children to the USA from Bremerhaven on August 14th, 1949. They were bound for Elk Point, South Dakota.

Ship: USS General Harry Taylor

The USNS General Harry Taylor

The USNS General Harry Taylor

The USS General Harry Taylor was built in 1943 by Kaiser Co. Inc in Richmond, California. She was named for the US Army Chief of Engineers Harry Taylor.

Like the Langfitt, she was originally a troop transport during the war. When the war was over, the Navy decommissioned her. But on March 1, 1950, the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) reactivated her to help transport refugees and troops from Europe, back to the Americas or elsewhere in the world.

In 1957, she carried thousands of Hungarian refugees to Australia during the Hungarian Revolution for a year, then was deactivated once again in 1958. In 1961 she was transferred to the US Air Force and renamed the USAFS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg. In 1964, the Navy acquired her and she was designated T-AGM-10, as a Missile Range Instrumentation Ship, carrying out duties in both Atlantic and Pacific waters until 1993, when she was stricken from the Naval register.

In 1998, the movie “Virus”  shot some scenes aboard the ex-General Hoyt S. Vandenberg. The ship was supposed to be a Russian vessel known as the Akademik Vladislav Volkov.

On Wednesday, May 27, 2009, she was sunk off the coast of Florida, in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, used as an artificial reef. You can still see some of the Cyrillic lettering painted on the hull from the movie filming to this day.

The USS General Harry Taylor carried Janis Akerfelds and his family, minus his eldest two sons, to Berthoud, Colorado, USA on August 12, 1950 from Bremerhaven, Germany.

a diver explores the sunken General Hoyt Vandenburg

a diver explores the sunken General Hoyt Vandenburg

Ship: USS General Langfitt

The USS General Langfitt was built in 1944 by Kaiser Co. Inc. in Richmond, California and named after General William Campbell Langfitt. She was first used during the war to transport American troops. By the time she was inactivated on September 30, 1957, she had travelled all over the world, a people carrier dropping off refugees, troops, veterans, in all corners of the globe. She sat as part of the US National Defense’ reserve fleet for a while, then was sold in 1968  and used as a container vessel, renamed SS Transindiana. The SS Transindiana was scrapped in 1983 in Brownsville, Texas.
Arturs Ziverts and his family (except for his sisters, Ida and Olga, his mother Jule and his daughter Irma) left Bremerhaven, Germany aboard the USS General Langfitt on March 19, 1950 bound for Berthoud, Colorado.

USS General Langfitt

USS General Langfitt

Ship: SS Zuiderkruis

The SS Zuiderkruis is the ship that carried Karlis Vinakmens and his family to Canada. Originally named the “SS Cranston Victory”, it was built by the Oregon Shipbuilding Yard in Portland, Oregon, USA and launched on May 5, 1944. It was first used as a troop transport ship, but was soon sold to the Dutch government for use as an immigrant transport ship. The SS Cranston Victory was renamed SS Zuiderkruis by the Dutch. She was out of commission by 1969 and destroyed.

Lockheed Super Constellation DALID

 

The plane on which Arvids travelled to Canada was a Lockheed L-1049G Super Constellation called D-ALID. Deutsche Lufthansa Aktiengesellschaft (Lufthansa – still a large European company today) flight no. 420/25 departed Frankfurt, Germany on January 25, 1957, crossed the Atlantic and landed in New York (LaGuardia?) How was he able to take a plane? Surely this was not typical of DP’s at the time. I’d really like to find out how and why this came to be at some point.
 
Here is the Passenger List, found with Ancestry.com
“TRWOV” means “Transfer without VISA”. “YUL” is the Montreal airport code. He is the only person on a relatively small passenger list bound for Montreal. His connecting flight from New York to Montreal appears to have been flight 323/26.

Ancestor Story: The Ziverts’ US Army Services

While I’m on an unusual military kick here, I thought I’d mention that Arvids’ uncle Arturs Ziverts’ family was close by the Akerfelds during the 1945-1950 time period as displaced persons. The Ziverts family consisted of Arturs Ziverts and his wife Katte (nee Akerfelds), their 7 children, Arturs’ two sisters Ida and Olga, and his mother, Jule Dzerve. It seems that Arturs and his second-eldest son Voldemars (the same age as Arvids) also found some employment with the US Forces as the Akerfelds did (although not the Labor Service).
They too went the Liepaja-Gotenhaufen-Kelsterbach route like the Akerfelds, but in November of 1944 when the Akerfelds went to Echzell, Hesse, the Ziverts wound up in Friedberg (also in the state of Hesse) in a forced labor camp. The name of the employer that Arturs worked for was “Conter & Braun”. They worked here at this camp until April of 1945, when they were liberated by the US Army. Once liberated, Arturs and Voldemars were employed by the US Army Tank Divison as labourers. (A note of interest is that when Elvis Presley served in the American Army a decade later, he was stationed in Friedberg at the Ray Barracks), and lived in nearby Bad Nauheim.

Then in July of 1945, they moved to Wiesbaden, Hesse, where the two were employed again as laborers by the US 89 Air Forces Division.
After Wiesbaden, the Ziverts were reunited with the Akerfelds in Bidingen/Dieburg/Darmstadt. Arturs was a general labourer at the first two, and a bricklayer in Darmstadt (like his brother-in-law Janis Akerfelds) In May 1948, Arturs worked for the 8850 Latvian Labor Service as a carpenter.

The Ziverts (Save for Ida, Olga, Irma and Jule Dzerve) left Germany from the port of Bremerhaven, sailing on the SS General Langfitt on March 19, 1950 bound for Berthoud, Colorado.