Record (Kitchener-Waterloo) | Sep. 04, 2004 | Editorial

An insensitive remark

Wherever one stands on the case of Helmut Oberlander, one would have difficulty drawing a reasonable comparison between his situation and the deadly fate of millions of concentration-camp victims.

Yet Oberlander's lawyer has made just such a comparison, in a letter to The Record published yesterday. Stating that Oberlander at age 17 was "forced to act as an interpreter for various police units, without pay," Erich Hafemann then goes on to conclude: "Some may argue that such work assisted the Nazi regime. So did every concentration camp inmate."

Oberlander was drafted by the Nazis as a translator for a police unit and killing machine, the Einsatzkommando, which murdered innocent civilians by the thousands. His service, which he says did not include involvement in any atrocities, earned him German citizenship during the war, providing him with an opportunity to immigrate to Canada and begin a new life.

Although translators helped to identify and round up the eventual victims of massacres, no one has proven that Oberlander knowingly participated in murders. In any case, choosing to stay alive in the bureaucracy of a ruthless police unit, over death on moral grounds, would not be the simplest decision for any person, and no one can blithely prescribe such a choice for another. Many people died in the Second World War for their moral choices, including Canadian teenagers who fought and died bravely on Juno Beach and beyond, resistance fighters and youthful underground volunteers in occupied countries, and even conscientious objectors in Nazi Germany itself. They paid the ultimate sacrifice for their heroism. Others did what they had to for survival, including forced work in labour camps. And others were rewarded for collaborating eagerly, and many convicted collaborators were rightfully punished.

But vast numbers of the 11 million who died in concentration camps, including the six million Jewish victims, were slaughtered not for making a moral decision, but for failing to fit the Nazi racial agenda. Rounded up and carted off to the gas chambers, they never had a chance to save their lives by harnessing themselves to the machinery of evil, regardless of whether they would have said yes or no.

The suggestion that "every" concentration camp victim somehow assisted the Nazis, except possibly by dying, is disgusting in the extreme.

Oberlander has remained in Canada and defended himself against his accusers in many venues for many years, by asserting his innocence of any misdeeds and by noting his contributions to Canadian life as a businessman and family man. This particular letter to the editor did not help his cause.