Friday, May. 29 2015, 5:43 PM EDT
Alleged Nazi war criminal died two weeks after Russia sought extradition

For more than half a century, Vladimir Katriuk tended after his ducks and beehives at his small farm on Dumas rural road, a short drive south of Montreal, near the border with the United States. Motorists ‎who dropped by could purchase his honey for $1.75 a pound.

In a previous age, however, when he was still in his 20s, Mr. Katriuk had been caught up in history’s bloodiest land conflict.

He survived and said he was just a Ukrainian nationalist who was trying to avoid being deported as slave labour ‎to Germany. But others alleged that he had been a war criminal, a Nazi collaborator who took part in the savagery unleashed by the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

Earlier this month, Russia asked for his extradition from Canada. Less than two weeks later, Mr. Katriuk died on May 22 in a hospital near his farmhouse in Ormstown, Que. He was 94.

The Federal Court ruled that he obtained his Canadian citizenship fraudulently. However, he got a reprieve in 2007, when a federal cabinet committee decided not to revoke his citizenship.

Jewish groups called for his expulsion while his supporters said he was the victim of Moscow’s vendetta against anti-Communist expatriates.

He came under the spotlight again three years ago when a Swedish historian published a paper that outlined allegations that he took part in a massacre at the village of Khatyn, in what is now Belarus.

Earlier this month, Russian authorities announced they had opened a criminal investigation into Mr. Katriuk’s role in the Khatyn killings.

The latest tussle about his fate was seen as being part of the spat between the Canadian government and Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.

For Ukrainian Canadians, Mr. Katriuk’s life illustrated the perils they faced during the Second World War where they were trapped between Soviet tyranny and Nazi brutality. “They found themselves between two anvils,” said Rev. Ihor Kutash, the pastor at the Montreal Ukrainian Orthodox church Mr. Katriuk attended. The accusations against him were seen as an attempt by Moscow to tarnish the Ukrainian diaspora.

“I’ve been set up by the KGB. I’m an innocent man,” he told the CBC in 1995 when Ottawa first tried to revoke his Canadian citizenship.

According to the account he gave to the Federal Court, Mr. Katriuk came from an ethnic Ukrainian family in what was then the Romanian region of Bukovina. He was born on Oct. 1, 1921, in the village of Luzhany, near Chernivtsi.

By the time he was a teenager, he left school after completing Grade 6 and apprenticed in a meatpacking plant.

In the summer of 1940, the region was annexed by the Soviet Union. The following year, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, unleashing a conflict of unprecedented ferocity where even zones away the front lines were the scenes of fighting and mass atrocities.

Mr. Katriuk told the court that in the fall of 1941, in the wake of the German invasion, he joined Ukrainian nationalists who wanted to liberate their nation from the Soviet Union.

They became members of a pro-German unit of local auxiliaries, Schutzmannschaft Battalion 115. Mr. Katriuk and some other Battalion 115 men were then transferred to another unit, Battalion 118, whose ranks were filled with Ukrainian volunteers and turncoat Soviet prisoners of war.

He testified that joining the battalions was the only alternative to deportation to Germany.

Mr. Katriuk’s claim was supported by two former members of Battalion 118, said the 1999 Federal Court ruling that found he had entered Canada under false pretenses.

On the other hand, the court also heard from Hamburg University historian Frank Golczewski, who said that, while PoWs joined the battalion to escape starvation, the initial Ukrainian members were volunteers.

Either in late 1942 or early 1943, Battalion 118 was deployed in what was then Byelorussia, north of Minsk.

Mr. Katriuk said he was posted on guard duties outside a flour mill, then protected villagers and their livestock from partisan groups that wanted to loot for food supplies.

“He testified that he had never participated in any major military operation and that he had never fired his gun. … The respondent’s testimony was that his company’s involvement was to protect civilians against enemy partisans,” the 1999 court ruling summarized.

However, the court heard from University of Freiburg historian Manfred Messerschmidt, who said the battalion took part in several anti-partisan operations where thousands were killed, including the destruction of the village of Khatyn.

“Although I have no difficulty concluding that the respondent participated in the operations in which his company was involved, I am not prepared, on the evidence before me, to conclude that he participated in the commission of atrocities against the civilian population,” Justice Marc Nadon said in the Federal Court decision.

Allegations were more specific in a 2012 paper by historian Per Anders Rudling of Lund University in Sweden.

Writing in the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Prof. Rudling said he relied on testimony given at Soviet trials in the 1970s and 1980s that were declassified only in 2008.

On March 22, 1943, vehicles of Battalion 118 were ambushed by partisans. The footprints the attackers left in the snow led to the nearby village of Khatyn. In reprisal, Battalion 118 went to Khatyn, herded villagers into a barn, piled hay outside and set it on fire.

Prof. Rudling’s paper said that, according to testimony at a 1974 trial of a battalion officer, “one witness stated that Volodymyr Katriuk was a particularly active participant in the atrocity: he reportedly lay behind the stationary machine gun, firing rounds on anyone attempting to escape the flames.”

In his paper, Prof. Rudling acknowledged that the Soviet Union sometimes exploited war-crimes trials for political purposes. “The materials should therefore be used with caution,” he wrote.

However, he noted that while statements by Soviet judges and prosecutors tended to be heavily politicized, the testimonies about the Khatyn massacre were consistent.

A year after events in Khatyn, the Red Army’s summer offensive of 1944 forced German troops and their allies out of Belarus.

Mr. Katriuk said survivors from his unit were transported by rail to France and reassigned to the 30th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS.

He and others made contact with the French Resistance and defected. Fearing that they would be returned to the Soviet Union, he said he enlisted in the Foreign Legion and was sent to fight the Germans. He ended the war on the Italian front.

After the war, his unit of the Foreign Legion was to be shipped to Vietnam as France prepared to reconquer its Indochinese colonies. He said he feared for his life because he did not get along with his commanding officer.

He deserted while on leave in July, 1945. He obtained new identity papers, using the name of his brother-in-law, Nicolas Schpirka. He also claimed a new birthday, in January rather than October, 1921.

He worked in a butcher shop in Paris and married Maria Stéphanie Kavoom, a French woman of Ukrainian ancestry.

In 1951, the couple decided to immigrate to Canada under the name Schpirka.

After a week-long ocean crossing, the migrant ship SS Nelly dropped them in Quebec City in August, 1951. They settled in Montreal. She opened a hair salon. He worked in the meatpacking industry, then began beekeeping.

They bought a three-storey apartment building in east-end Montreal but eventually lived at their farmhouse in Ormstown.

On the advice of a lawyer, Mr. Katriuk divulged his real name when he applied for Canadian citizenship.

He and his wife were granted citizenship under the Katriuk name in November, 1958.

Their life in Canada was quiet, but in the Soviet Union, the Khatyn massacre had become a symbol of the horrors of nazism.

A memorial was erected in 1966. Foreign visitors, such as U.S. president Richard Nixon, were asked to lay a wreath.

“The cynicism with which the Stalinist and Nazi regimes treated the memories of mass crimes has led some observers to speculate about a second Soviet motive for the construction of the Khatyn memorial,” Prof. Rudling wrote in his paper, noting that it created confusion with Katyn, where Soviet secret police executed 4,000 Polish officers.

In 1986, Hryhorii Vasiura, a former Soviet officer who became the chief of staff of Battalion 118, was put on trial. He was found guilty and executed the following year.

Around that time in Canada, the possible presence of war criminals in the country had become a big public issue.

Nazi hunter Sol Littman alleged that the SS doctor Josef Mengele once applied for a visa to Canada. The Deschênes Commission investigated whether Canada was a haven for fugitive Nazis.

At first, Ottawa tried to prosecute suspects in Canada, under war-crimes legislation introduced in 1987. This placated Eastern European groups that didn’t want to see people being sent to a trial in the Communist bloc.

However, prosecutors struggled to meet the high standards for criminal convictions. By 1995, Ottawa decided to follow the U.S. model of withdrawing citizenship and ordering deportation.

In August, 1996, Mr. Katriuk received notice that the government wanted to revoke his citizenship.

The Federal Court ruled in 1999 that he had misrepresented himself when he entered Canada. It was up to the federal cabinet to decide whether he should lose his citizenship and be removed from Canada.

His case and that of three other elderly men dragged on for years.

In 2006, the Conservatives took power and the following spring, a cabinet committee decided to expel two of the men but to allow the other two, including Mr. Katriuk, to stay in Canada.

“The Governor in Council decided not to revoke your citizenship. As a result, you remain a Canadian citizen under the Citizenship Act,” said a terse letter he received from the Citizenship and Immigration Department.

He kept a low profile, only disturbed in the fall of 2011 when he was admitted to hospital for a burst ulcer.

The following year, Prof. Rudling’s paper was released. It prompted the Simon Wiesenthal Center to put Mr. Katriuk high on its list of most wanted Nazi war criminals.

Amid the renewed uproar, Mr. Katriuk was visited in 2012 by a Canadian Press reporter.

In his curt, raspy French, Mr. Katriuk was only keen to chat about beekeeping.

He implied that he might say more one day.

“When it’s time to talk, I will talk,” he said. “Right now is not the time for me to talk.”

That time never came.

He did not have children and leaves his wife, Maria.