WATERLOO — An international Nazi hunter says Germany may now prosecute Helmut Oberlander for war crimes, if Canada ever deports him there.
Efraim Zuroff praises Germany for changing its law to ease the prosecution of Second World War suspects.
"I'm sorry this wasn't done 15 years ago, 30 years ago. At least it's being done now," said Zuroff, historian and chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization.
Until 2011, Oberlander, 91, faced little risk of German prosecution, partly because no evidence has been presented in court that he personally committed a war crime.
But Germany changed its war crimes policy after a legal precedent in 2011. Today, it is charging Second World War suspects as accessories to murder if they performed support roles in Nazi death camps not for crimes they committed personally.
"They were involved in a daily basis in mass murder, and for lengthy periods of time. So you could say in a certain sense, they are among the most guilty people in Nazi Germany," Zuroff said. "It's not a murder charge. It's an accessory to murder charge, which is a fair description."
Oberlander, a retired Waterloo developer, was a decorated, low-ranking interpreter with a mobile killing squad that murdered at least 23,000 people, mostly Jews, in the former Soviet Union.
His service was "vital to the purposes of (the squad) because he assisted in identifying who should be eliminated," Federal Court judge James Russell ruled in January.
"He wasn't part of the apparatus. The apparatus used him, in order to translate," said Ernst Friedel, a director with the German-Canadian Congress, which opposes the government's bid to strip Oberlander of his citizenship and deport him.
Germany deployed its new war crimes policy on Monday in charging an Auschwitz medic, 94. The former sergeant served in a hospital treating members of the SS.
The accused's lawyer said there's no evidence of any "concrete criminal act" by his client. A spokesperson for prosecutors said that because the medic helped the camp function, he could be charged as an accessory to killings in 1944.
Germany has used its new policy to also charge a former accountant at a death camp, 93, and two former guards, both 93.
Oberlander was born in a Ukraine village that the Nazis overran in 1941. The Nazis gave him German citizenship before he later immigrated to Canada, lying about his wartime service to gain entry, a court ruled.
Germany has so far limited its new prosecutions to members of up to six death camps. Zuroff said prosecutors may also target members of death squads, based on what they told him. "I hope and pray every day that it will happen," he said.
He's asked Germany to seek Oberlander's extradition from Canada and then to prosecute him. Germany has not responded to his request.
In Federal Court, Oberlander is appealing the government's third decision to strip his citizenship, as the case that began in 1995 drags into its third decade. The government has twice stripped his citizenship, but courts restored it.
In ruling Oberlander's service vital to the death squad, Russell cites "evidence that (Oberlander) served as an interpreter during the interrogation by German officers … of a woman who, had she been found to be Jewish, would likely have been killed."
The incident happened in Rostov, Ukraine in 1942 as the squad rounded up hundreds of people it later murdered. A frantic woman caught up in the roundup claimed not to be Jewish. The Germans spared her. The Record revealed the Rostov incident in 2000. Oberlander has denied it happened.
Oberlander's lawyer Ronald Poulton would not comment on Germany's changing war crimes policy.
The former West Germany convicted seven members of Oberlander's unit for war crimes in trials between 1972 and 1980. Sentences ranged from two to 10 years.