ORMSTOWN, Que. – Propped up by a shovel that acts as his cane, Vladimir Katriuk putters about his wooded lot in rural Quebec, lovingly caring for his bees and appearing to have few worries other than this season’s honey yield.
But a prominent Jewish human-rights organization insists there’s much more to the cordial 91-year-old beekeeper – whom they allege is of the world’s most-wanted Nazi war criminals.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center recently ranked Katriuk No. 4 on its top-10 list of suspected former Nazis, after a new study alleged he was a key participant in a village massacre during the Second World War.
An academic article alleged that, in 1943, a man with his name lay in wait outside a barn that had been set ablaze, operating a stationary machine gun and firing on civilians as they tried to escape. The same article said the man took a watch, bracelet and gun from the body of a woman found nearby.
Katriuk spoke with The Canadian Press this week at his small farm in Ormstown, just under an hour’s drive from Montreal.
He has denied any involvement in war crimes in the past. This week he repeatedly refused to discuss anything about himself – other than his passion: the honey bees.
“I have nothing to say,” Katriuk said of the accusations, after putting down a beekeeper’s smoker and replacing a mesh veil for a floppy ball cap.
“When we talk about bees, that’s different. When we talk about my own affairs, that’s something else. I’m sorry.”
Asked how he felt about having his name on the list of worst surviving Nazis, Katriuk paused. He reached into a box and pulled out a piece of a beehive: “You see?” he said. “Here they have started to make the royal cell (for a queen bee).”
The otherwise chatty Ukrainian-Canadian, who moved to Canada in 1951, claimed he wasn’t aware his name was added to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s list.
When pressed again about the allegations, he replied: “Let people talk.”
Katriuk has faced accusations that he was a Nazi collaborator before, but this week Katriuk seemed fixated only on his bees, and their well-being.
He even rushed to one bee’s defence.
“Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move,” Katriuk shouted at a news photographer who tried to swat a bee that had landed on his lapel.
“Stay still and that’s it.”
Katriuk had an operation on his left knee three years ago and needs another one on his right, so he hobbles while moving between the close to 20 beehives that sit in rows on his land.
Despite the aches, he appears sturdy for his age.
“It’s thanks to the bees that I’m still alive and that I can still move around,” Katriuk said over the constant background hum of the insects.
Katriuk, who lives in a small house on the property with his wife, has been raising bees since 1959 and he insists he has only been stung a few times.
“I’m not scared of bees,” said Katriuk, who sells honey off from his property for about $1.75 per pound. “You have to go softly, you can’t agitate them.”
A neighbour described Katriuk as a quiet man who keeps to himself in the sparsely populated area, only a few kilometres from the U.S. border.
“He’s a quiet guy. I don’t think he mixes in the community ever,” said the man, who did not want to be named.
The neighbour acknowledged that locals are aware of the allegations about Katriuk, which have made many news headlines over the years.
The Federal Court ruled in 1999 that Katriuk lied about his voluntary service for German authorities during the Second World War in order to obtain Canadian citizenship.
The court concluded Katriuk had been a member of a Ukrainian battalion implicated in numerous atrocities in Ukraine – including the deaths of thousands of Jews in Belorussia between 1941 and 1944.
But in 2007 the Canadian government overturned an earlier decision to revoke Katriuk’s citizenship, due to a lack of evidence.
Groups that have long been calling on the government to strip Katriuk of his citizenship now hope that fresh details published in a recent journal article will help change Ottawa’s mind.
The article alleges Katriuk was directly involved in the March 1943 massacre that “annihilated” the German-occupied village of Khatyn in Belorussia, which is now Belarus.
Soldiers allegedly herded villagers into a barn and lit the roof on fire with a torch, according to witness testimony published in the article titled, “The Khatyn Massacre in Belorussia: A Historical Controversy Revisited.”
“One witness stated that Volodymyr Katriuk was a particularly active participant in the atrocity: he reportedly lay behind the stationary machine gun, firing rounds on anyone attempting to escape the flames,” said the article, authored by Lund University historian Per Anders Rudling.
Rudling, whose research was published in the spring 2012 issue of Holocaust Genocide Studies, attributed these details to KGB interrogations released for the first time in 2008.
After these new allegations surfaced, B’nai Brith Canada urged the Canadian government in a letter to reconsider its position on Katriuk.
David Matas, the organization’s senior legal counsel, said Katriuk’s case could also be raised Thursday with Stephen Harper himself during a scheduled B’nai Brith meeting with the prime minister.
Before the meeting with Harper, Matas said Canada’s history in dealing with suspected war criminals has been “bleak.”
“It was easier after (the Second World War) to get into Canada if you were a Nazi war criminal, than if you were a Jewish refugee,” Matas said.
A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said the Harper government “remains committed to identifying and removing people involved in war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide from Canada, including revisiting new evidence on previously examined cases.”
Ana Curic also said Kenney had “a fruitful discussion” with Holocaust survivors earlier this week, reassuring them that the government remains committed to the Katriuk case.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s so-called “Chief Nazi-Hunter” alleges the new “hard evidence” in Rudling’s article will change everything in Katriuk’s case.
Efraim Zuroff, co-ordinator of the organization’s Nazi war crimes research project, said the most-wanted list also includes another Canadian: Helmut Oberlander, who’s ranked at No. 10.
Oberlander’s case is also in limbo, the group says.
Zuroff said the biggest problem in bringing suspected Nazis to justice is not finding them or the evidence – but a lack of political will in many countries to see that they’re prosecuted.
“What’s the chance of a 90-year-old Nazi war criminal committing murder again? Zero,” Zuroff said in an phone interview from the Jerusalem area.
“All they have to do is wait it out. People are going to die soon anyway and they’ll spare themselves the expense, the embarrassment and the problems – logistically or whatever – of prosecuting one of their own (citizens).”
Katriuk thought his own time was up last fall, when an ulcer burst in his stomach.
“I was almost finished,” said Katriuk.
He added that he received five litres of blood during his two-week stay in hospital.
He hinted that one day he might tell his story – but he didn’t say when.
“When it’s time to talk, I will talk,” he said. “Right now is not the time for me to talk.”
© 2012 The Canadian Press