In 2012, a journalist visited Vladimir Katriuk at his farm about 40 miles outside Montreal. At one point during the encounter, Katriuk, who was in his 90s, grabbed part of a beehive and started talking about a queen bee.
“You see?” he told the Canadian Press reporter. “Here they have started to make the royal cell.”
The reporter hadn’t asked about the hive, though. His question was about a list from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which had named the Ukrainian-born beekeeper — who died this month — as one of the world’s most wanted suspected Nazi war criminals.
The Canadian Press noted that the Jewish human-rights organization named for a famous Nazi hunter had ranked Katriuk fourth on its list, “after a new study alleged he was a key participant in a village massacre during World War II.”
The reporter trekked to Ormstown, Quebec, and confronted Katriuk, who “repeatedly refused to discuss anything about himself — other than his passion: the honey bees.”
“I have nothing to say,” Katriuk said. “When we talk about bees, that’s different. When we talk about my own affairs, that’s something else. I’m sorry.”
Katriuk’s attorney said the death occurred earlier this month. “It was a stroke or something do with a stroke,” the lawyer, Orest Rudzik, told the Canadian Press.
Katriuk, who moved to Canada in the 1950s, was a member of a Ukrainian battalion of the SS, the elite Nazi storm troops, between 1942 and 1944, according to the AP, citing war reports.
And he was accused of taking part in a brutal massacre during World War II, the horrifying details of which were included in a 2012 Holocaust and Genocide Studies report.
Nazi troops annihilated the village of Khatyn in Belorussia — now known as Belarus — on March 22, 1943, killing nearly 150 people, most of them children and women, and burning down their houses.
“Its residents were herded into a barn and burned alive,” reads the report, authored by Lund University historian Per Anders Rudling.
“One witness stated that Volodymyr Katriuk was a particularly active participant in the atrocity,” Rudling’s paper says. “He reportedly lay behind the stationary machine gun, firing rounds on anyone attempting to escape the flames.”
One of the few survivors of the massacre was a young boy, Viktor Andreevich Zhelobkovich, who, Rudling wrote, recalled years later that a “punitive squad” ordered his family into the street and brought them, along with other families, into a barn just outside their village.
“I could see between the planks of the barn wall how they piled up hay against the wall, which they then set on fire. When the burning roof caved in the people and and people’s clothes caught on fire, everybody threw themselves against the door, which broke open. The punitive squad stood around the barn and opened fire on the people, who were running in all directions.”
Zhelobkovich said he and his mother “made it five or six meters from the doors of the barn,” where his mother died.
“The barn burned down, burned corpses lay all around,” Zhelobkovich said. “Someone moaned: ‘drink…’ I ran, brought water, but to no avail, in front of my eyes the Khatyn villagers died one after another. Terrible, painful deaths.”
By the 1950s, according to the Canadian Press, Katriuk was living in Canada, where he became a beekeeper. In 1999, the Federal Court in Canada found that he falsely represented himself and concealed facts to obtain citizenship in the country. Years later, however, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet didn’t strip his citizenship.
Earlier this month, Russian authorities asked for Katriuk’s extradition to Moscow so he could be tried for alleged war crimes, according to the Globe and Mail. “Harper’s Conservative government ignored the request, saying it will never recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its interference in Ukraine.” the AP reported.
Just hours before Katriuk’s death was announced, the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs in Toronto called on the Canadian government “to review this case and take the necessary steps to ensure that, if guilty, Katriuk be held accountable for war crimes committed in collaboration with the Nazi regime.”
The case, the Globe and Mail noted, “has upset Jewish Canadians and war-criminal hunters for years.”
The newspaper noted that in 2012, Mark Adler, a conservative member of Canada’s House of Commons, “suggested via Twitter that Mr. Katriuk needed to leave.”
“Vladimir Katriuk hid his past as a Nazi collaborator,” Adler tweeted. “We must never forget. Collaborators’ lives shouldn’t end on a soft Canadian pillow.”
As news of Katriuk’s death spread, Russian officials criticized Canada for allowing him to remain in the country.
“Sadly, the Canadian government ignored numerous appeals by Canadian Jewish organizations and efforts by the Russian authorities to ensure that justice be served, allowing Vladimir Katriuk to retain citizenship of Canada while peacefully residing in this country,” press secretary Kirill Kalinin for the Russian Embassy in Ottawa said in an e-mail sent to the Canadian Press. “Employing legal or politically motivated loopholes to evade from trying or extraditing Nazi war criminals is totally unacceptable.”
“Of course, Katriuk’s death ends the case,” Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, told the New York Times. “Because Russia asked for his extradition, finally there was a country that was willing to bring him to justice, but that didn’t happen because of contemporary politics.”
Zuroff told the Times that Katriuk’s prosecution was made difficult by the lateness of Rudling’s revelations. “The most damning evidence against him was discovered relatively recently,” Zuroff said of Katriuk.
The Times noted that Rudling’s article was “derived from Soviet interrogation files that were declassified only in 2008 and were unavailable during earlier proceedings against Mr. Katriuk in Canada.”
In 2012, shortly after the publication of Rudling’s research, Zuroff told the Canadian Press that a lack of political will is often the biggest obstacle in bringing suspected Nazis to justice.
“What’s the chance of a 90-year-old Nazi war criminal committing murder again? Zero,” he said at the time. “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).”
For his part, Katriuk always denied that he’d committed war crimes.
When the Canadian Press reporter visited his farm three years ago, Katriuk said he hadn’t heard about his addition to the Wiesenthal Center list and he wouldn’t discuss the allegations.
“Let people talk,” he said.
But, the Canadian Press noted, Katriuk “hinted that one day he might tell his story — but he didn’t say when.”
Said the beekeeper: “When it’s time to talk, I will talk. Right now is not the time for me to talk.”