WATERLOO — Helmut Oberlander, the 96-year-old Waterloo man who served a Nazi death squad, is fighting what might be his last battle to stay in Canada.
He's challenging a federal government bid to deport him, arguing the Immigration and Refugee Board has no power to hear a case against him because his right to stay endures without citizenship.
The federal board has not ruled on its jurisdiction, pending legal arguments due Feb. 28. No date has been set for a hearing into his deportation.
Russia has also opened a new front, asking Canada this month to hand over its files on Oberlander, to help investigate the mass murder of children at a Soviet orphanage during the Second World War.
The SS-led unit that Oberlander served murdered 214 children in that 1942 massacre, sealing some in the tin-lined cargo hold of a truck and poisoning them with exhaust fumes.
The children were aged three to 17. Some were disabled, some bedridden, and some healthy. Several squad members were convicted by a West German court in 1972. They received four-year sentences for the massacre.
Canada is mum on its response, pointing to a treaty it has with Russia to share legal information in the enforcement of laws. Requests under the treaty are confidential, said a spokesperson for the Department of Justice.
Top Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff is baffled by the Russian request. It comes from a government agency that probes serious crimes, the Reuters news agency reports.
The Russians had decades to seek information about Oberlander, said Zuroff, the Jerusalem-based chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. So why now?
He suspects geopolitics. Perhaps the Russian government is seeking to embarrass the West by highlighting how countries granted haven to Nazi war criminals.
"I find it almost ludicrous that all of a sudden, after more than 30 years that the (Oberlander) case has been in the public eye, that they suddenly found this information," Zuroff said. "It's quite strange."
Oberlander, a German speaker born in Ukraine, served as a decorated interpreter for the death squad that murdered at least 23,000 people, mostly Jews, between 1941 and 1943 in Ukraine and Russia.
The unit herded civilians above trenches to murder them. One survivor recalled babies falling unharmed into a trench after their mothers were shot in the back. The infants cried until buried alive under the corpses.
German prosecutors are now investigating other men who served in mobile killing units, after Zuroff found four members of death squads alive in Germany.
That's under a new German legal standard that allows for accomplices to be tried as accessories to mass murder, even if the accused is not linked to a specific death.
Germany has not tried a member of a death squad under this standard but Oberlander "should be at risk of prosecution" if deported to Germany, Zuroff said.
The Nazis made Oberlander a German citizen in 1944 to honour his service.
"He's not Heinrich Himmler," Zuroff said. "But it's people like him who made it happen, who implemented the policies of the Nazi leadership, and that's why the scope of the Holocaust reached the magnitude that it had."
After revoking his citizenship, the Canadian government now wants him deported from the home he has known since 1954.
"Having served the Nazi machine for at least two years and lied about it to enter Canada, he has no right to remain in Canada," the government said in January, in asking the immigration board to hold a hearing and order Oberlander's removal.
The government calls Oberlander a "vital cog in a mobile killing unit that was responsible for the murders of countless civilians" and says he was "complicit in the crimes against humanity committed by that unit."
It argues his age and health are no reason not to deport him.
A court found Oberlander hid his membership in a death squad to gain citizenship by fraud. His lies "gave him the undeserved privilege of living a long life in Canada, something that the victims of (the killing unit) never had," the government said.
Oberlander is raising humanitarian concerns, citing his age, health and family ties.
"His removal from Canada would be devastating for (his daughters and grandchildren) because he cannot cope on his own," his lawyers told the immigration board. "It is unfair and cruel to now attempt to deport Mr. Oberlander from Canada."
The retired Waterloo land developer is legally blind, needs a hearing aid, and struggles to recall what he was just told, according to medical and psychological assessments prepared by his family.
He's too frail to participate in a deportation hearing, his lawyers say. His daughter, Irene Rooney, is preparing to stand in for him.
"The whole case is not fair," longtime Oberlander supporter Ernst Friedel said. "He wants to exonerate his name. He wants to leave something for his family that is not tainted."
Friedel is a former president of the German Canadian Congress who argues the government is abusing its power, pursuing Oberlander without direct evidence he committed a crime.
Oberlander had trouble walking and hearing when Friedel last saw him a few months ago. "He is not in good shape."
It took Canada four attempts between 2001 and 2017 to revoke Oberlander's citizenship. The effort cost taxpayers more than $2 million in legal bills.
Three times, Oberlander persuaded the courts that the government acted unlawfully. The Supreme Court of Canada refused last December to hear his final citizenship appeal.
Veteran human rights lawyer David Matas is unsure if the government will now be able to deport Oberlander.
"The fact of the matter is the legal ingenuity of lawyers is endless," Matas said. "And who knows what they will think up next."
Matas has followed the Oberlander case for decades. He's the senior lawyer for B'nai Brith Canada and represented the organization at a federal Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in the 1980s.
"There may be a whole bunch of new legal issues," Matas said of arguments now before the immigration board. "It is certainly a frustrating case."
Oberlander is the last of the priority suspects identified in 1986 by the war crimes commission.
"The last one standing is Oberlander," Zuroff said.