The Case of Helmut Oberlander
“February 28, 2000 was my first day of work at Canadian Jewish Congress. I was handed a thick wad of paper and told, ‘This is a federal court decision. Read it and tell me what you think.’ That was my introduction to the story of Helmut Oberlander.”
Oberlander was a translator for ek10a, a unit within Einstazgruppe D, one of four groups that followed the Wehrmacht into Russia following the invasion of that country by the Nazis in 1941. The Einsatzgruppen, though, were not combat units. Rather they were special units that had been constituted with a single brutal purpose: to murder civilians. Most of their victims were Jews.
Even today, when most lay people think of the Holocaust, they think of the industrial factories of death – Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor and Majdanek – but before these places of destruction were created, the Final Solution was carried out by men with rifles, pistols and machine guns, and death was meted out at the edge of a mass grave. It is estimated that as many as 1.3 million Jewish men, women and children were murdered by members of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units.
Some of those murdered may have been members of my family, their lives in the city of Buczacz (Ukraine) cut cruelly short in July 1942.
Helmut Oberlander came to Canada in 1954 and, according to the findings of the Federal Court in 2000, misrepresented his war-time activities in order to gain entry to Canada and was later given the privilege of Canadian citizenship. There is no suggestion that Oberlander engaged in war crimes or that, colloquially speaking, he ever “pulled the trigger.” But as a member of a mobile killing unit he was a member of an organization with a single brutal purpose. Had his membership been known he would not have been admitted to Canada. On this basis the Governor in Council moved for the removal of his citizenship and his deportation, a determination known as D&D or denaturalization and deportation.
Over the last 16 years, Oberlander has successfully launched one appeal after another. First, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the government must show that they have taken into account Oberlander’s comportment while he has been a citizen of Canada, and the matter was returned to the government for reconsideration.
A second order for revocation of citizenship was overturned in 2009 because the Court deemed that some consideration should be given to the matter of duress – despite the fact that Oberlander and his lawyers had never themselves raised this matter.
Finally, on February 15 of this year, the Court overturned a 2012 revocation order, indicating that the mere membership in ek10a was insufficient to deprive Oberlander of his citizenship.
The government of Canada must now decide whether they will make a fourth attempt to remove Oberlander’s citizenship and remove him from Canada. At age 92 it may well be that Father Time will deal with him first.
One of the advantages of not being a judge is that I can begin my sentences with words like, “I find it inconceivable that…”
I find it inconceivable that Oberlander could be a member of a mobile killing unit for 18 months and not comprehend the mission of ek10a.
I find it inconceivable that a translator in one of the smallest of the 4Einsatzgruppen would have no interaction with the targeted population and would never have facilitated the work of that unit by translating and transmitting orders to the frightened Jews. SS-Brigadefuhrer Otto Ohlendorf was the commander of Einsatzgruppe D and gave the following description of their modus operandi:
The Einsatz unit would enter a village or town and order the prominent Jewish citizens to call together all Jews for the purpose of “resettlement.” They were requested to hand over their valuables and shortly before execution to surrender their outer clothing. They were transported to the place of execution, usually an anti-tank ditch, in trucks – always only as many as could be executed immediately. In this way it was attempted to keep the span of time from the moment in which the victims knew what was about to happen to them until the time of their actual execution as short as possible.
I find it inconceivable that the possibility of duress can even be considered when the Federal Court previously ruled that Oberlander never took steps to escape or be relieved of his duties. In the words of Justice James Russell, Oberlander “stayed with ek10a and there is no evidence that he didn’t want to be there.”
I can imagine why Oberlander would not have asked for a transfer. After all, being a translator for a unit charged with murdering defenseless civilians would have been a pretty soft assignment. The food was good and nobody was shooting at you. Considering the alternative of being a combat soldier facing the Russian Army, being part of a unit that killed Jews must have seemed like an obvious choice once moral scruples were packed away. While not a universal choice it was certainly a popular one: consider the recently concluded trial in Germany of Oscar Groning, the so-called Accountant of Auschwitz who never killed anyone but through his presence helped to keep the machinery running.
What I do not understand is how the Federal Court of Canada has, on three separate occasions, found ways to avoid the simple truth and the obvious conclusion: Helmut Oberlander gained entry to Canada – and citizenship – through fraudulent means. He has never had a right to be in Canada. He should not be here now.
Len Rudner can be reached at email@example.com
Len Rudner is the former Director of Community Relations and Outreach for Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). He is a recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for community service. Currently he is in private practice dealing with community advocacy, human rights, diversity, education and communication issues.
(Photo credits: Rudner, CIJA; Oberlander, a-loupe.over-blog.net)
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