Canadian Press | Mar. 18, 2004 | CP

canada news

Thursday, Mar 18, 2004

Edmonton man denies charges of Nazi past, says he was prisoner, not guard

EDMONTON (CP) - Dressed in faded pyjamas, toes protruding from worn slippers, Josef Furman - "Joe" these days - doesn't look like a war criminal. But the Canadian government believes he is and wants to strip him of his citizenship as a result. In documents filed in Federal Court, the government says Furman was a Nazi concentration camp guard involved in the liquidation of Jews. "No! I never did that! No!" Furman protests. Sitting in the immaculate kitchen of his modest north-end home, surrounded by the photos and memorabilia of more than a half-century in Canada, Furman insists he was a prisoner, not a guard.

"A Russian soldier I was," he said in heavily accented English in an interview with The Canadian Press on Thursday. "I a Russian prisoner was.

"I was prisoner in Germany. I was in a concentration camp like prisoner."

It is alleged that Furman and Jura Skomatchuk, 83, of St. Catharines, Ont., were both members of the same wartime unit, the Trawniki guard.

The government recently moved to strip Skomatchuk of his citizenship.

Trawniki guard members were trained at a camp of the same name near the Polish community of Lublin. They helped clear ghettos, escort Jewish prisoners under transport and guard concentration camps.

Some Trawniki men took part in the ruthless quashing of the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Thousands of Jews were rounded up, guarded, delivered to death camps and executed with Trawniki help.

The government's statement of claim tracks Furman from Warsaw to the Bialystok Ghetto to the Flossenburg concentration camp.

All Trawniki men were photographed, registered and assigned an identification number.

Furman, 85, doesn't seem to know how to react to the charges. Sometimes he seems angry; sometimes he laughs incredulously, his white hair flying out from his balding head like wispy wings.

He is never less than gracious, doing his best to understand questions from a stranger about horrors half a world and half a lifetime away.

No, he was never in Warsaw, Lublin or Trawniki.

"I was never at this place," he says.

Furman said he was born in the Ukrainian village of Chudniv, under the name Furman, not Furmanchuk, as the statement of claim alleges. He also says he was born in 1919, not 1921.

The Nazis invaded what is now the Ukraine in June 1941. Sometime in 1942, says Furman, he and many of his friends joined the Soviet Red Army to fight the Germans.

Shortly after, he says, he was captured by the Germans in the Crimea. He spent the rest of the war, he insists, being shuttled from city to city as part of a labour crew.

"I was working," he says. "Hard working."

He remained a prisoner right up until the end of the war.

The laughter comes at the very idea of working with the German SS.

"Why could I be a concentration camp guard or something when I don't understand German? It's funny."

"How could I have trained with the SS? I against Germany was fighting."

But it's hard to get details about where and how Furman spent the war.

Questions must be repeated and rephrased.

He has no memorabilia from his time in the Russian military. "It's a long time ago," he says.

The case and the controversy seem to genuinely confuse him.

"I never knew nothing about what this is, never knew nothing about this."

Furman has no lawyer. Neighbours say his command of English has faded in recent years.

He came to Canada in 1949 and became a citizen eight years later. He was a pipefitter and also worked in a hospital.

He and his wife raised two sons and have six grandchildren.

Furman visits his wife daily in a nursing home.

"That's what he lives for, taking care of his wife," said one neighbour. "When she goes, he'll go soon after."

Furman lives alone, his house surrounded by his well-kept yard and garden. His living room is crowded with photos of family and friends and Ukrainian memorabilia. A Ukrainian newspaper lies on a table.

He proudly shows off a childhood picture of his sons in a group shot from their Ukrainian church, all the boys and girls in ethnic costume.

In November 2003, the government informed him of its intention to strip him of his citizenship for allegedly lying about his Nazi past, making him eligible for deportation. Furman opted to fight the matter and requested it be referred to the Federal Court.

Furman has until April 17 to file a statement of defence. After that, a court date will be set. If a Federal Court judge decides against Furman, the minister of citizenship and immigration must write the order revoking his citizenship. The Governor in Council acts on that order.

Where Furman would be deported is an issue for the courts to decide, said Lynn Lovett of Justice Canada's war crimes unit.

At that stage, Furman could ask for a judicial review.

It's never too late to prosecute war criminals, said Eric Vernon of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

"You do not reward longevity," he said. "You have to cast your mind back 50 or 60 years when these accused individuals were young and robust. There is no statutory limit on war crimes.

"Canada has an obligation to find them, to bring them to justice and remove them from our midst."

� The Canadian Press, 2004