Editorial: Oberlander Must Go

Oct. 28, 2020

On Feb. 28, 2000, Federal Court judge Andrew Mackay delivered his decision in the matter of Helmut Oberlander, and many of us felt that the case was now settled, that justice would finally be served, even if delayed, and in miserly portion. After all, the decision made it clear that on a balance of probabilities, Oberlander had lied about or misrepresented his wartime activities in order to fraudulently gain entry to Canada and then citizenship. Last week, he lost his bid to convince the Immigration and Refugee Board that it lacked jurisdiction to hear his case. The next step is a deportation hearing.

To recap, Oberlander served as a young translator in Einsatzgruppe D, a subunit Ek 10a, a mobile Nazi death squad. Einsatzgruppe D was responsible for the killing of more than 90,000 innocent civilians – part of the Holocaust by bullets that murdered more than one million Jewish men, women and children throughout the bloodlands of Eastern Europe and Ukraine.

Oberlander denied his membership in the unit and certainly denied any knowledge of the activities of the Einsatzgruppen, but Justice Mackay did not find his denials to be credible.

And 20 years later, Oberlander remains.

In the months that followed the initial decision, Oberlander’s lawyer claimed that the process was unfair, that his client had no means of appeal.

And 20 years later, Oberlander remains.

Oberlander’s cause was picked up by those who claimed that the process was a sham, and that he had been found guilty because of lobbying by Jewish advocacy groups 

And 20 years later, Oberlander remains.

His presence in Canada is an affront to the Holocaust survivors who are still with us. But more, it is an affront to all Canadians whose family trees have been brutally trimmed by genocide: the First Nations of Canada, Armenians, Ukrainians, Rwandans, Bosnians, Cambodians, Guatemalans, Sudanese, Darfurians.

But more it is – or should be – an affront to Canadians who believe that this country should be a sanctuary to the oppressed and not a haven for the oppressor.

In the two decades that have passed since that February 2000 decision, Oberlander’s defenders have pointed to his sterling behaviour in Canada, his contributions as a businessman; his deep roots in the Kitchener community.

It’s irrelevant – all of it. Not because we think so, but because, in successive judicial decisions, the courts have said so. Oberlander’s lawyers said that we should consider his spotless Canadian reputation? We have. And he lied to enter Canada.

His lawyers said that we should consider his family situation? Now we have. And he lied to enter Canada.

We should consider that his participation in Ek10a should be seen as the result of coercion? We did that as well. And he lied to enter Canada.

In each case, Oberlander has been afforded the full scope of all that Canadian law permits. Appeals were filed, heard, and rejected – on the facts – one after another.

What remains? Oberlander’s current legal representation (he outlived his initial lawyer) may simply be attempting to run out the clock. Their client is 96 years old. Perhaps they can keep the legal merry-go-round turning until their client shuffles off his mortal coil and faces a judge who is more certain and less tractable?

Perhaps. But it didn’t have to be this way. Like Edmund in King Lear, Oberlander could have said, “I pant for life. Some good I mean to do, despite of mine own nature.” He could have confessed. He could have said, “I was young and frightened and I gave in. Forgive me.” He could have offered a model of repentance and provided lessons – so incredibly important – for a generation in which history is optional both as an academic subject and as an intellectual compass. Instead, he remains obdurate.

Oberlander may still ask the courts to review his loss at the IRB. But Canada should not await his next legal somersault. Let him go now. Let him appeal his case from Germany. His continued presence in our country defiles all we should be as a nation.

He must go.