Canada’s last known Nazi-era suspect died on Monday, ending the government’s quarter-century effort to deport him, in a case that critics said spotlighted the country’s poor record of bringing accountability for the atrocities of the 20th century.
Helmut Oberlander, 97, served as an interpreter for a roving Nazi death squad that killed more than 20,000 people in the German-occupied eastern territories during World War II.
Ottawa has since 1995 sought to deport Oberlander, who immigrated to Canada in 1954 and became a real estate developer in Waterloo, Ontario. It alleged that he unlawfully obtained Canadian citizenship in 1960 by hiding his participation in a subgroup of the Einsatzgruppen death squads from immigration officials.
After a protracted legal battle and nearly eight decades after World War II, his case was sent to the Immigration and Refugee Board this year for a deportation hearing.
In a letter filed to the tribunal, his attorneys called for a stay of those hearings, arguing that Oberlander was “unable, on account of mental disorder, to conduct a defense.” A geriatric doctor wrote in another submission that Oberlander had “declined markedly since January” and was not expected “to survive much beyond the summer.”
An adjudicator for the tribunal had reserved her decision on a stay after hearings this month.
Oberlander’s lawyer told the tribunal on Wednesday that Oberlander had died on Monday.
“I submit that this matter is now moot,” attorney Ronald Poulton wrote.
A spokeswoman for the Immigration and Refugee Board said the public safety minister agreed that “the admissibility hearing should be terminated upon receipt of the death certificate.”
Michael Mostyn, chief executive of B’nai Brith Canada, said “the peaceful demise of Helmut Oberlander on Canadian soil is a stain on our national conscience.”
“The fact is that this country slammed its doors on Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, then allowed some of their tormentors into Canada and failed to deport them,” he said.
Oberlander, an ethnic German born in southeastern Ukraine, was 17 when he became an interpreter with the Einsatzkommando 10a in 1941.
A Federal Court of Canada judge found in 2000 that Oberlander had obtained his citizenship by “false representation or by knowingly concealing material circumstances.” The federal cabinet revoked his citizenship in 2001, 2007 and 2012. Oberlander won appeals of those decisions. It was revoked a fourth time in 2017. The decision was upheld.
In 1985, then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed Judge Jules Deschênes to chair a commission to investigate claims that scores of Nazis had slipped into Canada in the years after World War II.
Deschênes’s report dismissed those claims as “grossly exaggerated” but also found that Canada had “devoted not the slightest energy” to searching for and prosecuting war criminals. He recommended remedies for dealing with alleged war criminals: extradition, criminal prosecution, and denaturalization and deportation.
Oberlander’s name appeared in a secret version of the report that was obtained through a public records request. The report confirmed that he was an interpreter for the EK10a and said the District Court of Munich had closed his file in 1970 because of “insufficient evidence” that he was a direct participant in war crimes.
It recommended revoking his citizenship for failing to disclose his EK10a membership to immigration officials.
Ottawa passed war crimes legislation in 1987. But in 1994, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the acquittal of a former Hungarian gendarmerie captain accused of deporting thousands of Jews to concentration camps, allowing the defense of “obedience to superior orders” in some circumstances.
That made prosecuting alleged war criminals “impractical,” according to the Justice Department of Canada, so the government shifted its strategy to revoking citizenship and deporting those who hid their wartime activities from officials.
Oberlander is among several suspects who died before those proceedings ended.