By Miriam Bell for J-Wire…
NZSki has, once again, doubled down on their refusal to remove the Mt Hutt ski field’s homage to former Waffen SS soldier Willi Huber – unless they receive evidence he committed war crimes.
This latest statement comes after a fresh approach to NZSki from Israel’s Ambassador to New Zealand last week.
The controversy over Huber, who is considered one of the “founding fathers” of Canterbury’s Mt Hutt ski area, has been going on since his death, at 97, in early August.
That’s because there was more to Huber’s past than his endeavours on New Zealand’s ski fields.
At 17, Huber volunteered for the Waffen-SS, where he served as a machine-gunner. He earned two Iron Cross medals for his military actions. After the war, he was turned over to the Americans and held as a prisoner of war for 16 months.
He then immigrated to New Zealand in 1953 and remained there for the rest of his life, making a name for himself on the ski-fields. Mt Hutt now features a lasting memorial to him in the form of the Huber’s run trail, a plaque and a café.
Yet Huber was unrepentant about his wartime activities, describing Hitler as a “clever man who bought Austria out of the dump” while denying any knowledge of the actions of the Waffen-SS.
This was well-known because he was the subject of several complementary media stories over the years. They included a TVNZ Sunday programme in 2017 which was heavily criticised for glossing over and minimising his Nazi past.
While there were protests at this uncritical depiction of Huber, it was after his death – when Mt Hutt Ski Area manager James McKenzie told media the ski run named after Huber would keep his name – that community anger over the situation coalesced.
Jewish community leaders, like NZ Jewish Council spokesperson Juliet Moses, wrote impassioned columns asking why New Zealand was intent on honouring the legacy of an unrepentant Nazi.
Zionist Federation of NZ president Rob Berg started a petition asking for the removal of the “honouring legacy” to Huber from Mt Hutt”. At the time of writing, that petition had attracted over 6,800 signatures.
Yet, despite all this and a meeting between NZSki, the owners of Mt Hutt Ski Area, Berg?, NZ Jewish Council members and the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, NZSki and the Mt Hutt Ski Area owners have not backed down.
That prompted Israel’s Ambassador to New Zealand, Dr Itzhak Gerberg, to write a letter to NZSki expressing his “deep concern about the decision to permanently honour the legacy of Mr Willi Huber at the Mt Hutt ski area”.
Gerberg reiterated that Huber was a decorated Nazi officer who volunteered at the Waffen-SS during the Holocaust. “Under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, this particular branch of the Nazi regime was responsible for running the concentration camps in which six million Jews have perished.”
It should be pointed out that Huber never publicly denied his past Nazi ideology, he said – adding that as the son of a Holocaust survivor family, he felt strongly that NZSki should change its decision.
However, it seems Gerberg’s letter has not changed the thinking of NZSki at this point – although the organisation does say it is seeking further advice.
In a written response, NZSki Ltd CEO Paul Anderson said they are aware that Huber was a member of the Waffen SS, but that to date they have found no evidence that he was involved nor aware of any war crimes.
“We are seeking independent expert advice to help us understand whether Willi Huber would have likely been responsible for criminal acts as opposed to military acts whilst serving in the Waffen SS.
“We have met with both the NZ Jewish Council and representatives from the LGBT community and indicated that we will consider changing the name of Huber’s Hut and Huber’s Run if evidence is uncovered that clearly links Mr Huber to war crimes.”
If they were to make a decision at this point in time to remove acknowledgement of Huber from Mt Hutt they would be doing it on the basis of him being guilty by association and they don’t feel it is right to judge a person posthumously as a war criminal, Anderson said.
“We recognise and respect the views of all the voices we have heard in relation to this sensitive matter and will review our position if we get information that more specifically links Mr Huber to war crimes.”
He also noted the interest around the situation following Huber’s passing has been “hard felt by his family and many friends who worked with him at Mt Hutt during the 1970s”.
But those involved in trying to get Huber’s “honouring legacy” removed from Mt Hutt believe it is extremely unlikely that Huber was an innocent member of the Waffen SS.
Petition-organiser Berg said it is “beyond any reasonable doubt” that Huber would have directly participated in war crimes and in the Holocaust, and inconceivable that he did not know what was happening, as he claimed, until “the bitter end”.
To back this up, he pointed out that a quarter of all Jews killed in the Holocaust were not killed in concentration camps. They were murdered in fields, in mass graves.
“Soldiers were taking photos and movies in such numbers that the SS gave a directive ordering them to stop. Mr Huber, as a Captain in the Waffen-SS, would have received that directive.
“The very unit Huber served in, the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, was directly responsible for the slaughter of 920 Jews near Minsk in September 1941 and the massacre of 642 French civilians in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in the Limousin region on 10 June 1944.”
The Holocaust and Antisemitism Foundation also contacted the renowned director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre office in Jerusalem, Dr Efraim Zuroff, to get his view on Huber’s likely wartime involvement.
Zuroff said he could state unequivocally that serving in a Waffen-SS unit on the Eastern front, there is no way that Huber could possibly not have been aware of the massive atrocities carried out by the SS.
“If we add the fact that he volunteered for the SS, and his comments that Hitler was “very clever,” and that he “offered [Austrians] a way out” of the hardships after World War I, it’s clear that Mr. Huber was an unrepentant Nazi, who doesn’t deserve any sympathy or recognition.”
For Holocaust Centre of New Zealand’s chief executive, Chris Harris, there’s no doubt that Huber was aware of what was going on in the Waffen-SS.
“Even if he didn’t participate in it, he was aware of it. For us that means that he should not be honoured and paid homage to.
“So we would love Mt Hutt to reconsider the renaming of that area… They can say he made a new life and so on. But that wasn’t possible for the millions of victims of the Nazis who never got that chance.”
Harris adds they are sad for Huber’s family’s loss.
“But we don’t accept that what he did can just be forgotten or ignored. We think he should be held accountable for his past and for what he was involved in.”
While NZSki wait to see if evidence that Huber committed war crimes emerges, Berg is continuing to run the petition and is encouraging people to sign it and share the link.
In his view, doing so will continue to put pressure on NZSki to “reverse this offensive decision” to honour the legacy of a Waffen-SS soldier.
*The link to Berg’s petition is http://chng.it/MSfFZmmHVj.
This article was originally written for, and published on, J-Wire here.