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Oberlander’s convoluted deportation process beaten by the clock

published September 28, 2021

When he first arrived in Canada in 1954, Helmut Oberlander undoubtedly presented to immigration officials as a respectable young Ukrainian man in his twenties, downplaying his German ethnicity and exaggerating the location of his birth in Ukraine.

He was among the thousands of immigrants seeking a new life in Canada. I was among them, so have a fair idea of what he – and the immigration authorities – were up against in the screening process. 

At that time, the crush of immigrants coming into Canada created lineups that authorities were under pressure to process. Each person had to fill out a “Landed Immigrant” card declaring place and date of birth.

It is not surprising that someone as young as Oberlander, born in Ukraine, would slip under the radar. Nor would there be any reason for them to suspect that his being a wartime interpreter would in itself demand his exclusion from Canada.

He was an interpreter for a Nazi death squad

However, it is difficult to imagine how an interpreter working for the Einsatzkommando – a notorious Nazi death squad – could not be complicit in the truly horrific interrogation techniques used by those experts in applying scare tactics, threats, torture and human degradation.

Oberlander applied for Canadian citizenship as soon as he was allowed after five years of residency and became “naturalized” in 1960. By then he was a permanent resident and there was no mechanism in place to reinterrogate applicants of citizenship. So he would not have been questioned about his past, at that point.

In fact, his past did not come to light until three years later, when he let down his guard to develop a more prominent business profile as a real estate developer.

Who among the hundreds of people he had mercilessly grilled in their own language, translating the threats of his Einsatzkommando interrogators, would forget the face of the young man who held their tenuous destiny in his hands? One wrong answer and they would be eliminated. Their lives literally hung in the balance of his interpretative skills.

How could he not be recognized by the abused and intimidated victims of that vicious Nazi regime?

RCMP kept an eye on him for 30 years

Although the RCMP were tipped off in 1963 that Oberlander was living in Canada under false pretences, they had no reason to believe that criminal charges would stick. They kept an eye on him, so to speak, but that’s all they could do for 30 years.

In 1995, the RCMP investigated Oberlander again, but by then Imre Finta – the first person prosecuted under Canada’s war crimes legislation – had been acquitted on similar charges in a decision upheld by courts of appeal. As an articling student for Finta’s lawyer, Doug Christie, I had a hand in drafting Finta’s legal arguments and had occasion to interview him more than once.

Finta, a wartime Hungarian gendarme, was accused of assigning Jews to particular boxcars for transport to Auschwitz. Many of the survivors would never forget the face of the man who, in their minds, determined their fate or the fate of their loved ones whom they were destined never to see again. Their testimony at trial was memorable, even from a defence perspective.