Canada's last Nazi denied a Supreme Court appeal of revoked citizenship

Canada may now move to deport Helmut Oberlander, 95, but his lawyer says he does not view that as inevitable or even possible

Helmut Oberlander is pictured in this undated handout photo. CIJA

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In what is likely Canada’s final major court case over complicity in Nazi atrocities, the Supreme Court of Canada has refused to hear the last-ditch appeal of Helmut Oberlander, 95, who worked as a translator for a Nazi killing squad in Ukraine and Russia, lied to obtain Canadian citizenship, then had a successful post-war career as a real estate developer in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.

This is the fourth time the government has tried to revoke his citizenship over two decades, after the Federal Court found in 2000 he entered Canada fraudulently in 1954 by failing to disclose his wartime past. The first time, for example, the revocation was overturned because the government failed to establish that the Einsatzkommando unit for which Oberlander worked had a “single, brutal purpose,” which would make even a translator complicit in its murders.

Oberlander’s case epitomized Canada’s difficulties prosecuting atrocities from the European theatre of the Second World War many decades after the fact, amid fears Canada had become a safe haven for aging Nazis.

In fact they do not have a deportation order yet and cannot get one. He is protected by Canadian domicile

Ronald Poulton, lawyer for Helmut Oberlander

Three times the decision to strip his citizenship was overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal, in 2001, 2007, and 2012.

With today’s denial of leave to appeal, and his Federal Court of Appeal file already closed, there are no further legal avenues of appeal.

Canada may now move to deport Oberlander as has been the policy with alleged Nazi war criminals since Canada stopped prosecuting those crimes criminally in the 1980s.

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But Oberlander’s lawyer Ronald Poulton says he does not view that as inevitable, or even possible.

“In fact they do not have a deportation order yet and cannot get one. He is protected by Canadian domicile. In addition, he has no country of nationality. He lost his German citizenship in 1960. He is stateless,” Poulton said.

“Mr. Oberlander won at the appeal level three times. The law was, and is, in his favour. They then changed the law to deny him a right of appeal so that politics and not law, would prevail. They have been successful. It is a sad day for the rule of law and democracy in Canada.”

Helmut Oberlander and his wife Margaret leave the courthouse in Kitchener, Ontario on Nov. 4, 2003. Peter Lee / CP file photo

A deportation hearing for Oberlander is already underway before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, but has been adjourned for argument on jurisdiction, Poulton said. He said the Supreme Court’s decision will have “no impact on the hearing.”

A statement from Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino said the federal government is pleased with the decision and remains “determined to deny safe haven in Canada to war criminals and persons believed to have committed or been complicit in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. While we do not take citizenship revocation lightly, we recognize that it is necessary in cases of fraud, false representation or where the individual knowingly concealed material circumstances.”

A statement issued by the family said justice has not been served. It pointed to Oberlander’s survival as a child of the Ukrainian famine and genocide, and said he should be regarded as a former child soldier because he was “forcibly conscripted on the threat of death by the Nazis at age 17.”

“Now, Mr. Oberlander has been unjustly persecuted for 24 years by the Government of Canada. Mr. Oberlander has never been charged with any crime. The Government of Canada has never produced a shred of evidence against Mr. Oberlander. No such evidence exists because he has never directly or indirectly contributed to any crime,” the statement reads. “Mr. Oberlander was innocent on the day this case began in 1995, and he is still innocent 24 years later. Mr. Oberlander is an upstanding member of our community and should live his remaining years in peace in Canada.”

After surrendering to American forces and being held in a British prisoner of war camp in 1945, Oberlander was released to work as a farm labourer and given a certificate of discharge from the German army. Previous court rulings describe him living in West Germany at Hannover and then Korntal near Stuttgart, where he reunited with his family and was married in 1950. The couple immigrated to Canada in 1954 and Oberlander gained citizenship in 1960, later having two daughters with his wife Margaret.

Jewish groups have long advocated he be deported to Germany.

“For 24 years, Oberlander has cynically abused Canada’s justice system to avoid prosecution in Germany,” said Shimon Fogel, president and CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “Anyone who cares about justice and human rights should join together in calling on the Government of Canada to immediately initiate the deportation process.”

“We ought not think of those like Oberlander who enabled the Nazi machinery of genocide, as they are today, elderly, sickly and near death,” said Bernie Farber, former chief executive officer of the now defunct Canadian Jewish Congress who for many years represented Jewish community interests in the case against Oberlander. “We must remember them as they were 75 years ago, young, healthy brutes who willingly and continually terrorized innocent children, babies, men and women. They are not deserving of our sympathy.

An ethnic German who lived in the Soviet Union in what is now Ukraine when it was invaded by Nazi forces, Oberlander spoke German, Russian and Ukrainian. Then a teenager, he was ordered by local authorities to report to German forces, who put him to work as a translator for Einsatzkommando 10a, known as Ek10a, one of the special police task forces that operated in eastern occupied territory during the Second World War. A judge in Oberlander’s case once described them as “mobile killing units” used by the Nazi SS for mass murder.

“EK 10a, by its own reports to police headquarters in Germany, had carried out substantial execution activities in Melitopol, Berdjansk, Mariupol and Taganrog, and then in the summer and fall of 1942 at Rostov and Krasnodar, and in the area of Novorossiysk, among other places,” wrote Judge Michael Phelan in 2008.

Oberlander maintained he had been dragooned into service and faced execution for desertion. And in his various court proceedings, he was never found to have personally participated in atrocities.

But he knew about them, and he concealed his involvement in Ek10a when asked by Canadian officials, which in the end sealed his fate.

Oberlander was among the first targets of a special war crimes unit set up by the federal government in the 1990s, by which time deportation had come to seem like a more realistic goal than criminal conviction.

But successes were hard to come by. Of the first dozen cases, half of them died before a final determination, two left the country of their own accord, three defended successfully.

None played out in quite as dramatic and convoluted a fashion as Oberlander’s case, which often spilled over into politics. For example, in 2001 his local MP Andrew Telegdi was threatened with expulsion from the party until he apologized for comparing Canada’s policy of stripping citizenship to Nazi tactics.

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