Kitchener-Waterloo Record | 11Jul2007 | Stephanie van Pelt

PUBLICATION: The Record (Kitchener, Cambridge And Waterloo) DATE: 2007.07.11

For how long must a 17-year-old be held accountable?

The lines across Helmut Oberlander's face in a recent newspaper picture show neither the happiness nor the pain he has experienced in his 83 years.

To know that, you must seek out his story -- one that is quite well known in Waterloo Region. Oberlander has lived in Kitchener for nearly 50 years as a Canadian citizen. During that time, he has raised a family and was a very successful land developer and builder.

Recently, Oberlander was stripped of his Canadian citizenship for a second time. There is an effort being made by the Canadian government to deport him from Canada.

The reasoning for this lies in the fact that when Oberlander was just my age, 17, he was forced into being an interpreter for the Einsatzkommando unit 10a during the Second World War. After the war, Oberlander applied for citizenship in Canada where he could start a new life.

When the Canadian government first took away Oberlander's citizenship, it did so based on the "probability" that during his immigration interview he lied about his wartime activities.

But it seems the evidence is questionable that he was ever asked about them, or that he told any lies. It's my understanding that the documents relating to Oberlander's immigration had been destroyed by the government several years ago and that Oberlander himself supplied more documents than the government possessed.

Let's allow for reasonable doubt. Should he not be considered innocent until proven guilty? What would prompt the government to make an exception in Oberlander's case? It does not seem fair to me.

In a May 25, 2007 Record article about Oberlander being stripped of his citizenship, I read that: "Bernie Farber, executive director of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Jewish Congress praised the decision by cabinet and said he is hopeful Oberlander, 83, will be kicked out of the country within a year." What is it that makes the Canadian Jewish Congress so intent on seeing Oberlander deported from Canada?

To say that the Holocaust was a vicious and atrocious act is truly an understatement. A few months ago, I went to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., on a school trip, and the sadness we all felt while walking through the museum was powerful. It is an experience that cannot be forgotten.

However, I find it difficult to condone the feelings of wanting a man deported because, when he was a youngster, he was forced to interpret for this Einsatzkommando unit during the Second World War. How could he control that?

At my age, I am not allowed to vote or sign a contract because I am still considered a child and not yet responsible enough to make these kinds of decisions. How can a 17-year-old in a life and death war environment be considered more responsible than I am now?

Wernher von Braun, as an adult, was deeply involved in the Nazi war effort as a rocket scientist. His past was ignored so that he could work in the United States and he became the father of the American space program.

Fast forward approximately 50 years to the story of Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone. He used to wield an AK-47, and shoot anyone he was ordered to, at the age of 13.

This boy really was a participant in what amounted to a death squad. He is now in his mid-20s, living in New York, and has graduated from university with a bachelor of arts degree in political science.

The people of the U.S. gave Beah a chance despite his dark past because he was just a child at the time and was forced into his situation. Beah tells his compelling story in a book called A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier.

What has changed in these 50 years? We have seen what a good second chance did for Beah -- but we have yet to see what good deportation will do for Oberlander.

How can the government ignore Oberlander's youth at the time, and his 50 years of upstanding Canadian citizenship, and then suddenly trample on it?

Let's ask why our government feels like they have to make an example of Oberlander by taking away his citizenship and pushing for his deportation.

Stephanie van Pelt is a student at Waterloo Collegiate who is planning to study journalism.