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How Canada earned a worldwide reputation as a major haven for war criminals

Canadian PoliticsEuropeWar Zones

Galicia Governor Otto von Wechter (first on the left) and German politician Hans Frank (third on the left) pass a group of volunteers of the 14th Waffen SS Galicia Division, June 1943. Photo courtesy the Polish National Digital Archive.

The following article by Sol Littman (1920-2017), a sociologist turned journalist and community activist who tracked Nazi war criminals and was the Canadian representative for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, originally appeared in a 1987 edition of Canadian Dimension. It casts a critical eye on the Deschênes Commission, officially known as the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada, which was established by the federal government in 1985 to investigate claims that Canada had become a haven for Nazi war criminals. As Littman writes, the commission played a role in whitewashing Nazi crimes while showing a seeming indifference to the thousands of alleged war criminals who slipped through Canada’s post-war immigration screen and found refuge here, almost entirely free from prosecution.

To the lawyer-politicians who staffed the Deschênes Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada, historian Alti Rodal must have looked like a pushover.

Slight and shy, the chronically overburdened mother of six was expected to serve the commission humbly and self-effacingly as befits a marginal, contract staff member. Certainly, commission counsellors Michael Meighen and Yves Fortier were not shopping for someone who would expose malfeasance in the ranks of the RCMP, ignorance and indifference in the Immigration Department, conspiracy and coverup in the intelligence services, and chicanery in the federal cabinets of McKenzie King and Louis St. Laurent.

Above all, no one expected her to provide data that would challenge the findings of the commission itself and the judgements of its Commissioner, Justice Jules Deschênes of the Québec Supreme Court.

Yet this is precisely what she has done!

By digging deeper than expected, by staying with the job when Fortier and Meighen were urging her to pack it in, she managed to spell out the details of some of Canada’s more shameful post-war episodes, and cast doubt on the conclusions of the commission appointed to investigate them.

The Deschênes Commission was appointed by Order-in-Council on February 7, 1985, because the government could no longer keep up the pretence that there were no war criminals in Canada. Or, as External Affairs and Justice Department officials used to insist, “If there are any, they must be small fry, minor offenders hardly worth bothering with.”

The Rauca case

The Rauca case made a mockery of this pretence.

In 1982, the nation was shocked to learn that Albert Helmut Rauca, a mass murderer responsible for the extermination of 10,500 innocent men, women and children in Kaunas, Lithuania, had been living cheerfully in our midst for 30 years. Even more disturbing: he was the object of a worldwide search launched by the West German government.

In 1962, the Germans advised the Canadian government that they were certain Rauca was somewhere in Canada. Yet, despite the fact that Rauca was living openly under his own name, carried a Canadian passport and an Ontario driver’s license, and received an old age pension, it took the RCMP twenty years to locate him. Had Solicitor General Robert Kaplan not personally interested himself in the case, the Mounties would not have found him to this day.

Rauca was clearly no minor war criminal. It was also evident that he was far from the only war criminal to slip through our indifferent post-war immigration screen.

The question was how many more Raucas were there? Jewish organizations claimed Canada had earned a worldwide reputation as a major haven for war criminals. The Soviet, Czech, Dutch and Polish governments accused Canada of ignoring repeated requests for the extradition of convicted war criminals. The government—both Trudeau’s and Mulroney’s—pooh-poohed the charges, attributed them to Russian propaganda and insisted there could be no more than a handful of them in Canada, surely no more than 40.

The Deschênes Commission

The Deschênes Commission was appointed to silence the hounds. It was designed to prove to the world that there was no significant gathering of war criminals in Canada, that there had been no collaboration with Nazis, no looking the other way on war crimes by Canadian officials. Or, in the words of Justice Deschênes, “Canadian policy on war crimes was not worse than that of several Western countries which displayed a lack of interest.”

Deschênes was charged with the task of determining how many war criminals lived in Canada, how they got in, and what legal measures could be taken against them by the government if the government had a mind to take measures. The bulk of the commission staff consisted of lawyers, police investigators and administrators.

Alti Rodal, a well-trained historian with the equivalent of a Ph.D. from Oxford, was hired to provide the commission with a dash of historical perspective, a rough guide to the warring parties, and an introduction to the fascist parties that beset pre-war Europe.

A second assignment was the review the history of Canada’s refugee policy, particularly as it affected the entry of displaced persons and war criminals from 1945 to the present.

Indifference to war crimes

Hired in March 1985, Rodal was given the almost impossible task of completing both reports before the commission’s mandate expired in December 1985. Given the constraint of time, the best she could do was to slap together a number of secondary sources, interview a few knowledgeable people, and thumb through the most promising files at the Public Archives of Canada.

But integrity took over. Rodal couldn’t bring herself to do a half-hearted job.

The further she burrowed into departmental files, the more instances she found of indifference to war crimes and hostility to Jews. In the years immediately following the war, blonde, blue-eyed Balts and Volksdeutsche were favoured by Canadian immigration officials. Whatever their sins during the war, whatever degree of collaboration they had given the Nazis, this was regarded as less important than the fact that they were bitterly and irredeemably anti-communist.

Our visa control officers—RCMP officers assigned to the Immigration Department—were unfamiliar with European political movements and couldn’t tell a fascist from a fakir. The Mounties regarded the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie, which had committed the unforgivable sin of rounding up Hungary’s Jews and delivering them to Eichmann and the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1944, as good fellows like themselves. After all, they also were designated as “royal,” rode horses, and patrolled the countryside.

But if Rodal were to meet her deadline, there was no time to follow these intriguing trails. All of this promising material would have to be set aside unless she could buy more time. She applied for a three month extension. It was refused. Fortier advised her to pack it in.

By now it was generally known that the commission was behind schedule and would not complete its work by its original December 1985 deadline. Deschênes requested and received a six month extension of his mandate. The lawyers and investigators on staff remained on the payroll. Rodal, however, was dropped. The historian was superfluous.

Rodal wavered. Should she wrap up her work and leave them with a superficial summary, or work on without pay to produce a document worthy of the events? She decided to continue. She met with Deschênes the following May 1986, and presented him with the full draft of her report. Deschênes read it, seemed to approve, and promised he would try to get her some money for her effort.

The judge kept his promise and Rodal did receive some additional compensation. But curiously Deschênes seems to have made no use whatever of the historical facts she put before him in writing his report. As a result, Rodal’s account of events is clearly at odds with the commissioner’s in several key instances.

Alti Rodal in 2018. Her report provided detailed information on the policies and attitudes that led to the presence of thousands of Nazi war criminals in Canada. Photo courtesy Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

The question of numbers

First and foremost, there is the question of numbers. Deschênes excoriated Simon Wiesenthal and others who claimed that more than 1,000 war criminals had managed to make their home in Canada. He scolds them for exaggerating the numbers. He pronounces that they are off by 400 percent.

In his own report, Deschênes offers a meagre list of 20 priority cases and a further list of 218 that bear further investigation.

Rodal doesn’t seem to buy this.

There are more of them out there, she suggests, than Deschênes has on his list. Their names are not readily available because, from the beginning, the Allies were ambivalent about the apprehension and punishment of Nazi war criminals, and little was done during the war years to prepare for their trial in the post-war period:

Lack of resources, coordination, and, in effect, interest on the part of the Allies permitted many criminals to avoid identification and apprehension… The domination of post-war policy by Cold War imperatives, moreover, further reduced the Western Allies’ will and motivation to take action, whether in relation to denazification in the rebuilding of West Germany; in relation to Austria; or in dealing with war criminals of Eastern European origin who had taken shelter in the West. As a result, many of those involved in the perpetration of crimes were able to join the post-war stream of European immigration to new lands of settlement, including Canada.

In addition to the German and Austrian officials of the Reich, she points out, “there was large-scale participation in the perpetration of crimes and in the carrying out of the Nazi program of genocide by native bureaucracies, military formations and individuals in the various territories occupied by the Nazis.”

Substantive documentation and testimony, she says, proves that thousands of Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, Croatians, Ukrainians, Byellorussians, Caucasians, Georgians, Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians enthusiastically joined the Nazis in the slaughter of Jews and Gypsies. No gun was held to their head. They rushed to offer their services as policemen, they joined semi-military police battalions that wiped out whole villages, and volunteered to fight in Waffen-SS divisions commanded by German officers. They helped put down the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, they staffed Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka, they ravaged their neighbours and sent their own young people to slave labour camps. Without them, Rodal says, the Nazis would never have been able to carry out their program.

In a key paragraph, Rodal states:

During the period from 1946 to 1967 some 620,000 immigrants from European countries where participation in war crimes was extensive were admitted to Canada. In view of the large number of people involved in the perpetration of war crimes who merged with displaced persons in the general immigration stream; in view of the inadequacy of the screening performed by international agencies and Canadian officials in the post-war years; and in view of the Canadian government’s policy of ethnic preference (for Balts and Volksdeutsche) in immigration, and of concentration, insofar as security screening and policy were concerned, on the weeding out of Communists, it would be rash to assume that significant numbers of war criminals and Nazi collaborators did not enter Canada.

Rodal quotes a startlingly frank RCMP document which states:

It is reasonable to assume, given the situation in Europe following World War II regarding lost, destroyed, stolen and seized identity papers, that certain persons undoubtedly came to Canada under assumed identities. The fact we do not have certain war criminal’s names listed on our landing records does not preclude the possibility of certain of their numbers living in Canada under assumed identities.

The Mounties might well have added, “or under their own true names.” Rodal points to Rauca as a case in point. At war’s end, the SS master sergeant was taken into custody by the American forces and held in a detention camp for SS officers from 1945 to 1948. Nevertheless, all records of his stay have disappeared and Rauca had no difficulty representing himself to Canadian authorities as a “salesman” when he applied for a visa and received security clearance at Karlsruhe. He was generously assisted by the Canadian Christian Council which paid his passage. No one challenged him when he arrived, no one asked to see the SS tattoo under his arm. Despite the fact that he was on at least two war criminal lists, the Canadian government didn’t hesitate to confer Canadian citizenship on him when he applied.

“There was nothing exceptional,” in Rauca’s case, Rodal insists. Although she avoids suggesting any numbers, it is clear that thousands of others, with equally heinous records, gained entry with equal ease.

Casting doubt on the Halychyna Division

Then, there is the Halychyna Division. Rodal and Deschênes don’t see eye to eye on this Ukrainian Waffen-SS division which fought ardently on the German side.

Variously known as the 14th Grenadier Volunteer Waffen-SS Division (Galician), 14th Waffen-SS Division (Ukrainian) and 1st Ukrainian Division of the 1st Ukrainian Army, they are regarded by the Soviets as “murderers” and “cut-throats,” and have been described by British officials as “quislings” and “traitors.”

The Russians claim that the division participated in wiping out dozens of Ukrainian and Polish villages and murdering thousands of innocent civilians. They are accused of having played a dirty role in the suppression of the 1944 anti-Nazi Slovak Uprising, and of welcoming into their ranks a Ukrainian police unit which helped put down the second Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

But division veterans, some 2,000 of whom came to Canada in 1950 by special dispensation of the Canadian government, claim they have been maligned by the Soviet propaganda apparatus; that they committed no crimes against humanity, burned down no villages, and guarded no concentration camps.

Their supporters claim that the Halychyna were never Nazis, but patriots fighting for an independent Ukraine against the Bolshevik hordes. Their designation as “Waffen-SS,” they insist, was strictly accidental, a matter of form imposed by the Germans and never a matter of ideology or conviction.

Their innocence is evidenced, they claim, by the fact that they were twice cleared of war crimes, by the Russians in 1945 and by the British in 1948. Deschênes, too, declares them without sin.

SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Freitag inspecting his Ukrainian troops at the Neuhammer training area in Poland, 1944. Freitag was the commander of the 14th Waffen SS Galicia Division.

“The Galicia Division should not be indicted as a group,” he declares in his report. “The members of the Galicia Division were individually screened for security purposes before admission to Canada. Charges of war crimes against members of the Galicia Division have never been substantiated… In the absence of evidence of participation or knowledge of specific war crimes, mere membership in the Galicia Division in insufficient to justify prosecution.”

Again, Rodal’s findings cast doubt on Deschênes’ conclusions. It is logical to assume, she says, that when the division was formed in 1943 following two years of brutal German occupation of Ukraine, many of the recruits were drawn from the ranks of the police and semi-military units that had assisted the Nazis in the slaughter of the Jews that followed the invasion.

“The presence of Ukrainian guards in the course of the deportation of Jews… and on duty at ghettos and concentration camps has been attested to by many survivors and documented by many scholars,” she writes. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists’ Nachtigall detachment entered Lvov in July 1941 and launched “the massacre of three thousand members of the Polish intelligentsia and hundreds of Jews from Lvov.”

In time, the members of many of the police units and the Nachtigall Detachment made their way into the division. “It is clear,” she says, that there was “continuity between the 1941-1943 Ukrainian police/military formations and the divisions.”

She gives short shrift to the division members who claim they volunteered “not because of love of the Germans but because of their hatred of the Russians and their Communist tyranny.” Whatever their motivation, she says, by 1943 they had seen the Jews in the region murdered and observed the “suffering and dislocation for many Ukrainians,”

Unfortunately, the fight against Communism was, all too often, perceived in Ukraine as a war against the Jews. The Ukrainian nationalist volunteers made little or no distinction between Bolshevik hordes and the Jews in their home town. Rodal observes that the equation of Jews and Communists was current in Ukraine long before the Nazis marched in. Nationalist organizations passed resolutions denouncing “the Jews in the USSR [who] constitute the most faithful support of the ruling Bolshevik regime.” The appeal for volunteers to the division called on Ukrainians to fight “Muscovite-Jewish Bolshevism” and the “Jewish-Bolshevik monster.”

From these comments alone, it is clear that the members of the division knew full well what they were signing up for when they joined the ranks of the SS. They were fully aware that they were being recruited to kill Jews, enslave their own people, and fight shoulder to shoulder with the German soldiers in building a Greater Reich.

Their SS affiliation was anything but pro forma; they were in every sense fully Waffen-SS. Their oath of allegiance was to Hitler, and bound them to absolute obedience to his will, she points out. Other authors have pointed to the SS and swastika symbols they displayed on their banners. Their discipline, awards, titles and ideological indoctrination were all Waffen-SS rather than Wehrmacht (German army).

A very porous screen

Nor was the Division screened for war crimes, either by the British or the Russians. A Soviet screening party did visit the division in 1945 after it had surrendered to the British and been interned at Rimini. However, the Russians were interested primarily in determining which of the men were Soviet citizens eligible for repatriation under the Yalta Agreement. The Russian inspection team was given a rough time by the camp’s residents and went away empty handed.

In 1947, a British official, Haldane Porter, was dispatched to Rimini to screen the division. But Porter confesses in his report that he spoke no Ukrainian and had to depend entirely on whatever he was told by the division’s officers. Porter admitted he knew nothing of the division’s history, had no documents or rosters to refer to, and succeeded in interviewing only a small cross-section of the division’s members.

Rodal concludes: “There is… little basis for current statements suggesting the Canadian government admitted members of the Galician Division only after carefully ascertaining that no war criminals were among those wishing to come to Canada.”

Sadly, Justice Deschênes chose to exculpate the members of the division after hearing evidence only from Ukrainian nationalist groups. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre twice offered to provide evidence against the division, but was refused each time.

In effect, the Deschênes Report is an inadequate and incomplete document unless it is read side by side with the Rodal Report. Yet, what authority does the Rodal Report command? Is it an official part of the Deschênes Commission Report? Or is it just a working paper of “considerable merit” which the Justice Department is free to ignore? Did the government have the right to censor Rodal’s report, to excise whole pages and vital case histories? Or is this an unmitigated interference with an historian’s right to publish her research?

Certainly the Rodal Report deserves wider circulation than it is now receiving. The government has chosen to limit its circulation by keeping it in typewritten manuscript form. It has not been sent to the government printer and delivered to government bookshops. The only way you can receive a copy today is by applying to the access officer of the Public Archives of Canada, enclosing a $60 check to cover photocopying costs.

Obviously, the government sees the Rodal Report as dangerous.

On February 1, 2024, Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced the new release of the Rodal Report. This newly released version, following a request made under the Access to Information Act, reveals information that was previously withheld.

Sol Littman was the Canadian Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, author of War Criminal on Trial, founding editor of the Canadian Jewish News, the first Director of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights, and was Assistant Education Director of the Anti-Defamation League in the United States. He also served as a reporter and producer with the CBC and an editorial writer with the Toronto Star. Littman died in 2017.


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