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: Fricis Vinakmens, Part 2

Fricis’ unit was ordered to guard a captured Russian lumber factory near Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg), Russia in the fall of 1942. In the summer of 1943, as the Germans were pushed back westward by the Soviet army, the unit disassembled the factory and brought it back west with them and the captured workers in tow. They reassembled the factory again in Lizums, Latvia and resumed production. In August of 1944, they once again moved west to Incukalns, near Riga for a short period, and in September of 1944, as the Nazis began suffering regular military defeats, the unit and factory were sent to the port of Liepaja, where the entire operation was packed onto a ship and escaped to Danzig (Gdansk), from where they travelled to the Todt Organization headquarters in Berlin. (a typical Todt worker uniform: http://en.valka.cz/attachments/11345/uniforma_todt.jpg)

The unit was in Berlin for one week in October of 1944. They were next sent to Peschiera, in northern Italy, for one month of more training. In December 1944, the unit went to Campo Tures, a comune in the Tyrolian Alps. While I am not sure exactly what they were doing here, it is probable that they were helping build lines of defensive structures.

Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, and the hostilities in Italy between the Nazi army and the Allied forces officially ended. What this meant for Fricis was he was now a prisoner-of-war. He and his unit were sent to a POW camp in Cesenatico, Italy, where he again worked as a mechanic.

In October of 1945, the International Refugee Organization took responsibility for all those displaced from their home country by the war. They began sorting people and attmepting to repatriate them to their countries of origin. At this time, Fricis went to a displaced persons camp in Modena, Italy from October 1945 until May of 1946 when he was transferred to a large DP camp full of many different ethnicities in Reggio Emilia.

Here at Reggio Emilia, he met Marianna Levinski, a Russian girl born in Rostov. Marianna had grown up in Rostov, and was sent to Baranovicy, Poland to live with an aunt in 1939 at age 17. The Nazi’s invaded Poland, and Marianna became an “ostworker” or forced foreign labourer, sent to a camp in Frankfurt am Main, Germany in 1942. Marianna was tranferred to many different places as a forced labourer in Germany and France between 1942 and 1945, before ending up in a German DP camp, then 2 Italian DP camps, then finally Reggio Emilia.

Fricis and Marianna were married in Reggio Emilia, and had a son there in April of 1947. The family applied for assistance to emigrate to Argentina, but were initially rejected due to Fricis’ involvement with the Organization Todt. Between this rejected application and 1953, I have found no documents or information about them. It could be assumed that they stayed in Italy or Germany, working and waiting.

Eventually, the family was cleared for immigration to Canada, and on October 17, 1953 Fricis, Marianna and their 6 year old son sailed on the SS Anna Salen from Bremerhaven, Germany to Quebec, Canada.

Marianna and Fricis, c. 1990

Ancestor Story: Fricis Vinakmens, Part 1

Fricis Vinakmens was born on May 19, 1921 in Tukums. He was (likely) the fifth and final child of Vilis Augusts Vinakmens/Weinstein and Emilija Karline Veisbergs. At the time of his birth, Fricis already had 16-, 10- and 8-year old brothers, and a 5-year-old sister. His parents had just come back to Latvia from Russia in the wake of the Russian Revolution. It is not clear when, but soon after his birth (or even conception), Vilis abandoned Emilija and their children.

Fricis grew up in Tukums during Latvia’s inter-war independence. His older brothers eventually joined the Latvian army and moved away from home. Fricis himself lived with his mother and sister up until 1942. His mother was a housekeeper, his sister was a clerk in a pharmacy, and Fricis was a mechanic at a private workshop owned by a man named Erdmans (his sister Alise later married an Erdmans… the same man?). When the Soviets invaded Latvia for the first time, they took over Fricis’ mechanic’s shop and declared it a Soviet government-owned business. When the Nazis took over, the shop passed hands to them.

It should be noted that much propaganda was used at this time to try and recruit men to the various German army units. A Latvian Waffen SS unit was formed. To some Latvians, after the horrors of what the Soviets had done to their family and friends, joining the Nazi army was just one way to fight back at the Soviets. Latvians also fought on the Soviet side, and also in the Kureliesi fighting against both sides. It is easy to see that the lines were quite blurred, and Latvians would fight in whatever way they could to stay alive. As the war progressed, the Nazis began suffering serious losses and the propaganda did not recruit enough men to voluntarily join their ranks, so they turned to forced conscription to recruit men into their forces to replace lost numbers.

The Todt organization was a Nazi paramilitary group, named for founder Fritz Todt. This organization in it’s early stages is actually responsible for the construction of the Autobahn highway, and the fortified Westwall along Germany’s western borders. It had been started in the early 1930′s as a large-scale construction and engineering organization. Of course, they required labourers, and in the beginning ethnic Germans worked for Todt. As the Nazi’s grew in power, the Todt’s projects became more and more militarily-focused. During the war, once the Nazi’s began suffering regular defeats, all their German man-power was diverted to military units. Forced labourers, conscripts, and prisoners-of-war from Nazi-occupied countries began to be used as Todt Organization workers. Even Jewish concentration camp prisoners were forced to join the paramilitary group. It is estimated that by 1944, over 1.4 million European men were part of this organization.

In September of 1942, Fricis was recruited by the Todt Organization. As an occupant of a Nazi-occupied foreign country, he was likely forcibly conscripted as a foreign labourer (fremdarbeiter). He was put in the “Schutzkommando” unit as a guard for other prisoners-of-war. They sent him to Riga for a brief training, then to the Russian Front near Leningrad.

More on the Todt Organization (1942-1945 under Albert Speer pertains to Fricis): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organisation_Todt