Globe and Mail | Mar. 19, 2004 | Bob Weber

War-crimes suspect says he was prisoner

Federal government seeks to revoke citizenship of Edmonton man, 85

Canadian Press
UPDATED AT 8:59 AM EST Friday, Mar. 19, 2004

EDMONTON -- 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 Mr. Furman was a Nazi concentration camp guard involved in the liquidation of Jews.

"No! I never did that! No!" Mr. 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, Mr. 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 yesterday. "I a Russian prisoner was.

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

It is alleged that Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Furman from Warsaw to the Bialystok Ghetto to the Flossenburg concentration camp.

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

Mr. 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 said.

Mr. Furman said he was born in the Ukrainian village of Chudniv, under the name Furman, not Furmanchuk, as the statement of claim alleges.

He said he was born in 1919, not 1921.

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

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

"I was working," he said. "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 Mr. 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 said.

The case and the controversy seem to genuinely confuse him.

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

Mr. 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 pipe fitter and also worked in a hospital.

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

Mr. Furman visits his wife daily in a nursing home.

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

In November of 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. Mr. Furman opted to fight the matter in Federal Court.

He has until April 17 to file a statement of defence. After that, a court date will be set.