NEW ZEALAND — The widely reported death in New Zealand last year of former Waffen-SS soldier Willi Huber served to awaken the consciousness of New Zealanders to the reality that Nazi war criminals and sympathizers live, or have lived, among them.
Huber, who migrated to New Zealand in 1953, was a keen skier. Often referred to as “a heartland hero” and “the founding father” of the South Island’s Mt. Hutt ski field, he achieved near-legendary status in the skiing fraternity and was lauded by some media. He died never having publicly expressed any remorse for his wartime activities.
Since the end of World War II, New Zealand, like Australia, has served as a sanctuary for war refugees and other displaced persons (DPs), mainly from Europe. But not all, it seems, were honest about their background.
Huber, for example, denied that he had knowledge of any of the atrocities carried out by the Waffen-SS or of the equally well-documented persecution of Jews during the Holocaust. That denial is scorned by prominent members of the Holocaust and Antisemitism Foundation of Aotearoa New Zealand (HAFANZ) who point out that the Nazis’ Waffen-SS was a killing unit that operated outside the legalities of war. They insist that any member of the notorious organization would have been very aware of its modus operandi.
Those sentiments are echoed by HAFANZ International Council member Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem. A distinguished historian, Zuroff insists that “the unrepentant Huber would have been very aware of the SS atrocities.” He also pointed out reported comments by the Austrian emigre that Hitler was “very clever” and “offered [Austrians] a way out” of the hardships they suffered after World War I.
Zuroff, who has devoted his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals and who these days is referred to as “the last Nazi hunter,” says he and others brought the identities of more than 50 suspected Nazi war criminals (previously reported as 46 or 47) living in the country to the attention of New Zealand’s government when he visited in the early 1990s. (Huber’s name was not among those Zuroff supplied).
“They were all Eastern European and mainly Lithuanian, and I’m sure there were others. Maybe many others,” Zuroff told The Times of Israel via telephone from Jerusalem in late April.
“We have no ability to monitor what happened to them. I know the New Zealand government appointed two detectives to investigate [those named], but the prime minister of the day refused to act on their findings,” Zuroff said.
It remains a sore point with Zuroff that successive administrations in New Zealand have failed to act on those findings.
“New Zealand was the only Anglo-Saxon country, out of Great Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia, that chose not to take legal action after a governmental inquiry into the presence of Nazis. This despite the fact that the lead investigator provided confirmation [of the presence of a Nazi war criminal in New Zealand] that should have been acted on,” Zuroff said.
The investigator he referred to was senior detective Sgt. Wayne Stringer, since retired, who reported that many suspects had already died and that he was able to strike others off the list.
Stringer notably confirmed that one of the names on Zuroff’s list was Jonas Pukas, a former member of the feared 12th Lithuanian Police Battalion, which massacred tens of thousands of Jews during the war.
When questioned at his New Zealand home in 1992, Pukas, then 78, insisted that he had only witnessed the killing of Jews and had not participated. However, he gloated, on tape and on the record, how Jews “screamed like geese” and he laughed when describing how victims “flew in the air” when they were shot.
Despite this, the government at that time decided there was insufficient evidence to charge Pukas with any crime. He died two years later, having lived out his final years in relative peace in his adopted country.
Attempts to reach former detective Stringer were unsuccessful. However, a Daily Mail Australia report from 2012 quotes Stringer as saying, “[Pukas’s] comments still haunt me… I’m confident Mr. Pukas was a war criminal.”
Members of New Zealand’s Jewish community share Stringer’s frustration. They want the list of names identifying Nazi war criminals and sympathizers — as supplied by Zuroff almost three decades ago — declassified so that those identified can be named. Though Zuroff himself is the one who supplied the names, he told The Times of Israel that he declines to publish them himself, as “that was the duty of the New Zealand government.”
Those identified relinquished any right to privacy, for themselves or their families, when they entered the country under false pretenses
A senior member of HAFANZ who asked to remain anonymous described the outstanding issue as New Zealand’s legacy of shame.
“Government bureaucrats in successive administrations wanted to be satisfied that declassifying the documents supplied and naming those identified would be in the public interest and would not breach privacy issues,” the HAFANZ official said. “Our answer to that is, the truth [about what happened and who was responsible] is surely in the public interest. As for privacy issues, those identified relinquished any right to privacy, for themselves or their families, when they entered the country under false pretenses.”
Given the amount of time that has elapsed since the war’s end and the fact that most, if not all, of the named parties are now dead, privacy issues today would be more likely to apply to the surviving relatives of those named.
The HAFANZ member said he hoped publicity would prompt New Zealand’s current government to do the decent thing and declassify the documents. “It’s only fair,” he said.
Historian and HAFANZ co-founder Dr. Sheree Trotter said it was difficult to explain the government’s lack of response on identified war criminals — especially as it was so out of step with the country’s allies.
“The specific case of Willi Huber could be explained by a number of factors,” Trotter said. “Many New Zealanders struggle to face our own colonial past where injustices and crimes were perpetrated by our forebears. It’s easier [for some] to take the view that we should just move on.”
Critics of the lack of response by successive governmental administrations are annoyed that Jewish refugees, including Holocaust survivors, had to jump through many more hoops to be admitted into New Zealand than did Nazi sympathizers, war criminals and other undesirables.
“Our history was patchy at best,” said Trotter. “In the period between 1933 and 1939 a paltry 1,100 Jews were permitted into New Zealand — and those under the most stringent requirements. The policy was harsh and punitive.”
Hungarian-born historian and author Ann Beaglehole agrees. “Jews were considered extremely undesirable settlers in the 1930s and 1940s,” she said.
Beaglehole summarizes the recent history of Jews in her adopted homeland in an essay titled “The Response of the New Zealand Government to Jewish Refugees and Holocaust Survivors, 1933-1947.” It is a damning portrayal of attitudes of the day.
“A small number of Jewish refugees… admitted before the outbreak of war put a stop to most immigration… Government policy was primarily concerned with the maintenance of New Zealand’s ethnic homogeneity, with Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors regarded as undesirable settlers,” Beaglehole writes.
In her acclaimed book “Refuge New Zealand: A Nation’s Response to Refugees and Asylum Seekers,” Beaglehole addresses some of the security issues New Zealand faced when selecting displaced persons for resettlement there.
“Security issues had to be considered. Selectors [of suitable DPs] were urged to take particular care with security screening to try to prevent war criminals, Nazi collaborators and traitors from entering New Zealand,” Beaglehole said.
Beaglehole quotes in the book a Department of Labour and Employment official as saying, “There will be Nazi sympathizers and communists amongst those [applying]. We want neither.”
“Despite New Zealand’s vigilance, some former Nazis were resettled in New Zealand,” the book continues. “A 1953 [Department of] Internal Affairs report noted: ‘For some time it has been fairly clear that wartime activities of a certain number… of DPs in New Zealand were highly dubious.’ It recommended that those concerned should not be naturalized and should be threatened with deportation.”
Of course, that never happened.
New Zealand’s current government appears no more enthusiastic about addressing the issue of resettled Nazi war criminals or declassifying documents relating to them than were past administrations.
A formal request by The Times of Israel to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern resulted in an admission that she “has no knowledge of suspected Nazi war criminals being admitted into New Zealand following WWII.”
Ardern’s press secretary, Zach Vickery, suggested the writer contact Immigration New Zealand for the requested information. A formal request to that ministry resulted in a similar response from Immigration New Zealand General Manager Border and Visa Operations Nicola Hogg.
“Immigration New Zealand [INZ] has no record of visa applications for individuals entering New Zealand after WWII where Nazi war criminals or sympathisers were identified during processing,” said Hogg.
“INZ is unable to assess whether it holds any historical documents relevant to your request without specific details of named individuals. However, if you are able to provide individual names or cases, INZ may be able to investigate further,” she said.
This writer replied that Hogg’s response indicated “she may not grasp the fact that Nazi war criminals and sympathizers would be highly unlikely to mention their dubious ‘credentials’ on their visa applications.”
No further response was forthcoming.
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