Former translator who served in Nazi killing units wins another reprieve from the courts despite numerous efforts to have him deported for failure to disclose his wartime record
Helmut Oberlander is a 92-year-old resident of Kitchener, Ontario, a former real estate developer and philanthropist who, during the Second World War, served as a translator for the Nazi Einsatzkommando 10a (Ek 10a), part of the mobile Nazi killing units that followed the Wehrmacht into Russia in June 1941.
He is on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s list of most wanted Nazi war criminals. Despite numerous efforts to deport him from Canada for failure to disclose his wartime service, the Federal Court of Appeal recently offered him another reprieve. What is his story?
Before the Nazis developed more industrial methods of murder in concentration camps, the mobile killing units worked behind the battle lines to slaughter defenceless civilians.
It’s estimated that more than two million people, as many as 1.3 million of them Jews, died at their hands. They are buried in mass graves across eastern Europe, in ravines or pits they were forced to dig themselves. At one, Babi Yar, more than 30,000 Jews were shot in the space of two days in September 1941.
Translators played a critical part in the killing units. Their role would have included instructions to the victims: Follow us. Stand here. Disrobe.
The work of Ek 10a would have continued with or without Oberlander. But that is frankly irrelevant. He was a member of an organization created with a single brutal purpose. To quote Benjamin Ferencz, a prosecutor at both the Nuremberg and Einsatzgruppen trials, “They are all sailing on a pirate ship and all members of the crew.”
And yet, over the course of the intervening years, Oberlander has successfully challenged three attempts by the Canadian government to have him deported. In each case, the Federal Court of Appeal has asked for further consideration after revoking his citizenzhip.
In 2004, the Court of Appeal asked if the government had considered Oberlander’s behaviour in Canada since he arrived in 1954. The court did not say this information would be decisive, only that it wanted to be sure it had been taken into account.
In 2009, the Court of Appeal agreed that Oberlander’s membership in Ek 10a indeed made him complicit, but at the same time asked if sufficient consideration had been given to the matter of duress. In other words, was he compelled to serve?
But he himself never raised that issue in his defence. In any event, Justice James Russell of the Court of Appeal later observed that Oberlander “stayed with Ek 10a, and there is no evidence that he didn’t want to be there.”
In its most recent decision issued in January, the Court of Appeal offered that Oberlander was entitled “a determination [by the court] of the extent to which he made a significant and knowing contribution to the crime or criminal purpose of the Ek 10a.”
Only then, the Court continued, “could a reasonable determination be made as to whether whatever harm he faced was more serious than the harm inflicted on others through his complicity.”
It does not matter if Oberlander was fearful of what might happen if he requested a transfer, or has been a model citizen since 1954.
What does matter is that those buried in the mass graves of Europe receive a measure of justice.
Those murdered by the Nazis benefited from no legal proceedings, never had the chance to find new lives in new countries or the blessing of long lives surrounded by family.
Helmut Oberlander has enjoyed all these things in Canada by virtue of misrepresentation.
Bernie M. Farber is executive director of the Mosaic Institute. Len Rudner and Eric Vernon are human rights consultants. From 1995 to 2011 the three oversaw the Oberlander file for the Canadian Jewish Congress.