Jun 2, 2007
  Passage of time has altered perspectives on war crimes

By now, most of us are familiar with the case of Helmut Oberlander. The 83-year-old Waterloo resident's citizenship was recently revoked for the second time by the Canadian government over accusations that he took part in war crimes during the Second World War. His ordeal has stirred passions, both among his supporters and foes.

The debates about Oberlander have raged for more than decade. His backers argue that he has been a "model citizen" since arriving in Canada more than 50 years ago. Moreover, they point out that Oberlander was only 17 when he was forced to become an interpreter for a mobile Nazi killing unit in Ukraine.

Oberlander's critics, by contrast, insist his contributions to the Nazi death machine were meaningful and that he ought to face some sort of consequences for his actions.

Oberlander's story is part of a larger dilemma. With the chief architects of the Third Reich dead and many of the mid-level figures also deceased, what purpose - if any - is served by continuing to hunt down the remaining, low-level alleged Nazis and Nazi collaborators? Should the hunt continue for what the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel called the "boy-next-door Nazis" (meaning those who were young and did not have leadership roles in the regime)? Or should they be left alone to live out their final days without facing penalties and punishments?

The answer depends on the actions of each individual ex-Nazi during the war. Those who participated in genocide certainly should be punished, whenever possible.

Efraim Zuroff, an American-born Israeli historian, has been nicknamed "the last Nazi hunter." Based at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, he travels around the world tracking down the last surviving Nazi war criminals - the "boy-next-door Nazis" - who weren't much older than Helmut Oberlander during the war.

"We're talking about people in units that carried out some of the worst murders of World War II," Zuroff explained. "There's no reason why someone who's been out there day after day shooting civilians shouldn't be held accountable. For the family or friends or relatives of the Jews killed, the fact that the guy was a corporal is irrelevant and does not provide him with a justifiable excuse for the crime he committed."

Zuroff is responsible for many important, high-profile captures. But his critics fault him for pursuing elderly men whose mental and physical capacities are rapidly deteriorating.

The culprits they're now looking for are getting on in years and, one would suspect, are neither capable of interrogation nor standing trial, Zuroff's critics insist.

Such is the case with Jacob Fast, a 97-year-old resident of St. Catharines, who played a key role in a Nazi unit that routinely murdered Jews. He failed to reveal this fact to authorities when he arrived in Halifax in 1947. Now suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Fast's memory is shot and his health is declining.

Like Oberlander, Fast was recently stripped of his citizenship, yet he probably isn't even aware of it.

Ultimately, this issue has everything to do with the choices that people make in life, not only when they're young and inexperienced, but more importantly, when they're older and hopefully a little wiser.

Today, Oberlander remains defiant and continues to see himself as a victim of endless harassment.

A nobler approach to past events was shown by Adalbert Lallier, a retired professor at Concordia University in Montreal.

In February 1945, Lallier was a 19-year-old Waffen SS officer-in-training in Czechoslovakia. He did not participate in war crimes, but he did watch in horror as his commanding officer, Julius Viel, savagely shot to death seven unarmed Jewish prisoners while they were digging a ditch.

When he came to Canada in 1951, Lallier informed immigration officials of his SS affiliation. Still, he kept this dark chapter of his life a secret from his friends, colleagues and students. That changed in the 1990s, when Lallier discovered that Viel had gone on to become a respected German citizen and recipient of the Federal Service Cross, the German government's highest civilian honour.

Sympathetic to Jews and haunted by his past, Lallier decided to act. He travelled to Germany, where he testified as the main witness against Viel in a German courtroom. Thanks to Lallier's testimony, Viel was convicted of war crimes in 2001 for murdering those seven Jewish prisoners.

"Adalbert Lallier is a terrifically brave individual," observed a Jewish activist. "He had no legal obligation to come forward. He is not even remotely suspected of any improper act. ... The Jewish community owes him a real debt of gratitude."

Lallier, unlike Oberlander, has used his experiences to educate others about the evils of Nazism. "I have no regrets about coming out. I will spend the rest of my days as a living reminder of what happened in the Holocaust," he said.

Oberlander and Lallier are a study in contrasts. While Oberlander remains angry and defensive, Lallier will long be remembered for his character and quiet courage.

Andrew Hunt is chair of the department of history at the University of Waterloo.