He was a quiet, elegant man, handsome and athletic; at first blush no one would think of Robert Kaplan as a politician. Yet beneath his suave appearance was a proud Liberal and determined politician.
Above all Robert Kaplan was a man of common justice. Where he saw unfairness he wanted to set it right. Where he encountered hostility and discrimination he fought it with all the tools he possessed. It is no wonder that in 1980, after Kaplan won two successive elections, that then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appointed Kaplan to cabinet as solicitor-general.
It is there where Kaplan’s light shone the brightest. During his time as solicitor-general he oversaw a complete reorganization of the RCMP and established the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS). Kaplan was also responsible for a revamping of the archaic 1908 Juvenile Delinquents Act into the Young Offenders Act, which saw a more progressive attitude toward youthful offenders in Canada.
However the one area where Kaplan had an important impact was simultaneously his toughest struggle both within his own party and with the man he revered as prime minister, Trudeau. Following the end of World War Two many hundreds of wanted Nazi war criminals made their way into Canada, where they hid comfortably for many years.
When Trudeau led his party to victory in 1968 he made it clear that hunting Nazi war criminals had a very low priority in his books. It was Trudeau’s contention that hunting down alleged war criminals so many years after the war would incite inter-ethnic conflict. He was particularly wary of the already sour relationships among Eastern European expatriates and Canadian Jews. Thus, despite heavy advocacy from Jewish community leaders, Trudeau would not be moved.
It was a grave error on his part and despite Kaplan’s respect for Trudeau, on this he fought the prime minister tooth and nail. It was to come to a head in early 1982 with the discovery of Nazi mass murderer Helmut Rauca alive and living well in, of all places, a Jewish suburb of Toronto.
Helmut Rauca was a Gestapo officer for Jewish Affairs in Kaunas, Lithuania, during the war years. From August 1941 until December 1943 Rauca was responsible for the selection and subsequent mass murder of 11,584 Jewish men, women and children. He undertook a number of actions, the most heinous of which occurred on Oct. 28 and 29, 1941. Known as the Great Aktion, Rauca supervised the forced liquidation of more than 30,000 inhabitants of the Kaunas ghetto. Among those gathered he personally selected more than 9,000 Jews who were led into the forests forced to dig their own graves and then summarily shot in the back of the head.
Indeed so vicious was Rauca that he was known to have personally shot Jews for his own pleasure. Among the myriad of charges against Rauca was that he personally shot to death Dr. Nathan Shapira, the son of the Lithuanian Chief Rabbi, Dr. Shapira’s wife and 12-year-old son. The evidence against Rauca was overwhelming.
Nonetheless our government agencies, police and political policy led to a despicable inertia in the Rauca case. Rauca left Germany in 1950 and illegally entered Canada via Saint John, N.B. He first found work as a farm labourer and years later became an independent businessman in Toronto.
As far back as 1961 the West German police issued an arrest warrant for one “Helmut Albert Rauca.” However, when Rauca entered Canada and applied for citizenship he misspelled his last name as Rauka. Sadly, Canada’s national police force was stymied by the misspelled name.
By 1972 the West German authorities believed strongly that Rauca was in Canada and with various spellings of his name asked the RCMP to investigate. This time some evidence turned up but Canadian privacy laws prevented government agencies from providing West German police with his whereabouts.
Ten years later in 1982, having fought fiercely with bureaucrats, fellow politicians and even the prime minister, then solicitor-general Kaplan won his argument and personally requested the passport office to meet Canada’s extradition requirements with Germany and provide their police with the information required.
Exactly 21 years after Rauca’s first arrest warrant was issued the RCMP took him into custody. Rauca was eventually extradited to Germany, where he died in jail awaiting trial.
Kaplan faced unfair heavy criticism from many in the Jewish community who believed he did not do enough to deal with Nazi war criminals. Yet the extradition of Rauca stands today as the first and only successful case of a Nazi murderer with blood on his hands ever extradited from Canada. Kaplan deserves to be remembered for his tenacious commitment to justice in the Rauca case. By doing so he honoured the memory of the 11,584 Jews murdered under Rauca’s hand.