Harlander: Never Forget
by Angie Littlefield
As Silver Sagers, we have come to know multiple generations of people in our lives—those who preceded us, ourselves, and those who have followed us. And it is especially crucial to understand what came before us, so that we can inform our children and grandchildren about the realities of human experience.
My family emigrated from Germany to Canada on the SS Desdemona in 1954. My mother had chafed at the long delay after the war ended, as she had wanted to leave quickly. To her, Germany represented betrayal. She and her mother had been sent to concentration camps. Her grandparents did not survive murder in Poland. We started anew in Whitby, Ontario, then a town of 6,000 persons.
Scarred by her WWII experiences, my mother did not trust any Germans who arrived in Canada prior to us. “They’re all Nazis,” she’d rant. “Got here early with help from their Nazi pals!” So, I was most surprised when, eight years later, she befriended the artistic Hilde Gaebler, a refugee from Rothenburg, in northern Bavaria. The Gaeblers and our family exchanged visits. I went to senior prom with Hilde’s son. I sat vigil outside Hilde’s hospital room with my toddler when Hilde almost died during a fight with cancer. At the time, I ascribed my mother’s continuing distrust of Germans other than Hilde to her entrenched and festering paranoia and dismissed her concerns as foolish.
On October 3, 2020, my husband handed me a Toronto Star article on a decades-old Canadian war crimes case. I read through the usual delay details that characterize these cases. Then my heart stopped. “Benno Harlander . . . near Whitby . . . Sergeant . . . killing squad.” Benno Harlander was not the subject of the article, but he had been a person of interest to German prosecutors, who had interviewed him in 1970 for being part of SS Einsatzgruppe Sonderkommando 10a, an SS unit responsible for killing 40,000 people between 1941 and 1943. My heart pounded now, because Hilde Gaebler was friends with the Harlanders, a family of four potters who lived near Whitby.
Hilde and the Harlanders had lived on the same street in Rothenburg while growing up. Hilde’s English was good enough that she had acted as a translator during part of the Nuremberg trials in 1946. She had sailed from Europe with the Harlanders in 1951 and had helped her childhood friends with the Canadian entry forms.
I knew that my mother had been suspicious of that early emigration date and did not associate with the Harlanders, despite the reputation they garnered as makers of wonderful pottery in the Bauhaus style. Then, in 1986, the Harlanders simply disappeared, and no one knew why. At least no one said.
After reading that article, I went into research overdrive. The members of killing squad 10a were volunteers, not forced into their roles, and the unit of which Benno Harlander was the sergeant rotated all its members into the activity of murder on the outskirts of thirty villages in what is now Russia and Ukraine. There was eyewitness testimony from a handful of survivors who had climbed out from under corpses piled high in graves into which they had been shot. I had read similar reports in Holocaust history before, but now I associated it with a man with whom my mother had a nodding acquaintance and one whom Hilde Gaebler had helped to enter Canada.
I then read a 2017 article by Bernie M. Farber on an incident at an orphanage in Jeissk, in occupied Ukraine. The orphans were predominantly disabled. On October 9, 1942, the 10a killing squad showed up with a truck that had false windows painted on its sides to disguise its real purpose. It was a gas van with a hose rigged to redirect exhaust fumes into the sealed cargo hold. Farber provided chilling details:
The children are assembled in the courtyard. The smallest ones and those who cannot walk are carried out of the building . . . Some children climb into the van themselves. There are no seats in the cargo hold. Others try to run away but are caught, beaten, and thrown inside. Volovia Goncharov tries to flee. Two men grab the child by his legs, his head toward the ground. They drag him out of the building into the van. The van doors are closed, sealing the crying children into the tin-lined cargo hold. The engine is fired up. All the children perish inside the truck . . . A second gassing the same day kills more children. Such was a day’s work for Einsatzkommando 10, a Nazi killing unit tasked with slaughtering civilians. The death squad will murder 214 children from the Jeissk asylum.
Benno Harlander was there that day, the day that 214 children were poisoned. I felt Volovia’s terror on October 9, 1942, in the same way I felt my great-grandmother Rosa’s last breaths in Chelmno when I read about her fate in a gas van in 1942. She, too, had struggled for air after the doors shut her into darkness. I am horrified that the man who threw disabled children into a tin box and participated in the murder of thousands of adults lived among us in small town Ontario. I bicycled past the Harlander home many times. I admired their pottery. Their stately home vanished from Highway 12, not too long after the Harlanders did. It turned out that they had returned to Germany before public exposure in Canada.
My mother died on December 23, 2000. I am grateful that she was spared knowing about Benno Harlander’s crimes and about her only German friend’s involvement with him. It would have broken her heart to know that Hilde helped Benno. It would have traumatized her that Hilde had been complicit.
I wish to make this apology to my mother now twenty years after her death. Not fully understanding the betrayals she lived and the horrors she saw, I belittled her concerns, dismissed them as paranoia. I know that we mostly live among good people. Life as a Silver Sager has taught me that. But evil had a physical shape for my mother. It was in the form of the German betrayers and murderers whom she felt always around her. It went by the name of Harlander in Jeissk and in my hometown. It can take shape again. We need to listen to those who have seen evil.
Photo credit by Tim Hufner (Munich, Germany) huefner-design.de
1 Bernie M Faber, “A former Nazi death squad member continues to confound justice”, ipolitics.ca, August 3, 2017.
Angie Littlefield is an author, curator, educator, and editor. She has written three books about Canadian artist Tom Thomson, the most recent of which is Tom Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends. Her eclectic interests include curating art exhibits in Canada and Germany and working with children from Nunavut and Tristan da Cunha to produce their books. Her other books include Ilse Salberg: Weimar Photographer, Angelika Hoerle: Comet of Cologne Dadaists, and The Art of Dissent: Willy Fick. She co-created www.readingandremembrance.ca, a website with lesson packages for Ontario educators. Angie lives in Toronto, Canada.