After months of pressure, a ski run and restaurant at Canterbury’s Mt Hutt are being renamed. David Williams reports

A ski field has quietly wiped a Nazi officer’s name from its slopes – but not from the entire mountain.

Willi Huber, a pioneer of Canterbury ski field Mt Hutt, lauded as the ‘father of the mountain’ in a 2017 TVNZ Sunday programme, died in August last year, aged 97.

However, the ski field’s promise to continue to honour him with the name of its restaurant and a ski run hit a swastika-shaped snag. The Austrian volunteered for the Waffen-SS, the combat arm of the notorious SS, and became a decorated officer.

(SS is an abbreviation for Schutzstaffel, meaning “protective echelon”. It was founded by Adolf Hitler in 1925 as his personal bodyguards but grew with the rise of the Nazi movement, to 38 combat divisions comprising 950,000 men. Heinrich Himmler headed the SS from 1929.)

News of Huber being memorialised at Mt Hutt sparked a wave of outrage, especially in light of his comments to Sunday – the link to which was deleted last night – that Hitler was “clever”.

A petition was launched asking for Huber’s name to be scraped from the ski field was signed by thousands of people. The story was also picked up by the Jerusalem Post.

Last September, members of the NZ Jewish Council and the Holocaust Centre of NZ discussed the issue with Paul Anderson, the boss of NZSki, the company that operates Mt Hutt, and Queenstown fields The Remarkables and Coronet Peak. After the meeting, Mt Hutt’s manager told Stuff the names of the restaurant and ski run would only be changed if evidence was presented linking Huber to war crimes.

Nothing has been said publicly since.

But a search of Mt Hutt’s website this week revealed Huber’s Run has been removed from the ski field’s trail map and the restaurant had been renamed Ōpuke Kai. (Ōpuke is the Māori name for Mt Hutt. NZ Ski has asked iwi Ngāi Tahu if it’s comfortable for that name to be used.)

Anderson, the NZSki boss, confirms the changes. The decision was made early this year and the changes were implemented a month ago, he said.

“We’ve had to take care on the way through to respect the views of a wide range of people and recognise that there were diverse opinions on the issue. We’ve just come to our decision that it’s time to move forward.”

His language is carefully couched – almost certainly too careful for some – as the ski field tries to maintain a precarious balancing act between various interests. (One of those interests is the rainbow community, which lobbied for changes to be made.)

Holocaust Centre chair Deborah Hart says Mt Hutt’s move was good.

“It is important that we don’t forget what happened in World War Two – we had a lot of servicemen who gave their lives – and we don’t forget what happened in the Holocaust. The Waffen-SS were critical elements of the Nazi apparatus and we shouldn’t be doing anything to honour them.”

Anderson says he consulted the Huber family about the changes. Newsroom was unable to contact Huber’s son, Raymond, for comment last night.

The sign for the ski run at Mt Hutt named after Willi Huber, from the 2017 Sunday programme. Image: TVNZ

According to the Jerusalem Post, Huber was born in the Austrian Alps in 1923, the son of a farmer. He joined the Hitler Youth and, at 17, volunteered for the Waffen-SS.

(The Jewish Virtual Library says SS combat training had three objectives: physical fitness, small-arms proficiency and political indoctrination.)

He was a machine gunner and tank gunner who was involved in the Russian invasion in 1941. By the time of the Battle of Kursk he’d reached the rank of Hauptsturmfuhrer, equivalent of a captain. For his role in the eastern campaigns, he was awarded two iron crosses.

In Sunday’s 2017 piece, criticised as too fawning, Huber was billed as a “remarkable survivor” who was on the “frontline” of history – rather than the wrong side of it.

Huber told the show of seeing Hitler for the first time, aged nine, during an economic depression. He went on: “I give it to Hitler, he was very clever, he brought Austria out of this dump.”

Hart, of the Holocaust Centre, says the comment shows how unrepentant Huber was. “It is surprising that there was just such a low level of understanding about what Mr Huber was.”

The Waffen-SS was such a heinous part of the Nazi apparatus it was designated a criminal organisation at Nuremberg. “The modern-day equivalent would be ISIS.”

Huber, who was imprisoned in a United States prisoner-of-war camp after the war and arrived in New Zealand in 1953, told Sunday he wasn’t aware of concentration camps – run by the SS – until the “bitter end”. “What could we do? We all agreed it is wrong.”

The 2017 programme on Huber was striking, Hart says, for a feeling about his Nazi past of “isn’t it incredible?” and almost “isn’t it wonderful?”.

“It is concerning that both Mt Hutt and the Sunday programme just didn’t get it, that, really, how inappropriate it was to name something so pristine as a ski slope on Mt Hutt after an unrepentant Nazi.”

TVNZ supplied an anonymised statement to Newsroom: “Sunday questioned Willi Huber about his past for the 2017 story, but we accept this should have been more robust.”

Rob Berg started last year’s online petition to erase Huber’s name from Mt Hutt. (At last count, it had more than 6800 signatures.) Though he’s president of the Zionist Federation of NZ, he did so in a personal capacity.

Berg says Huber fought in the Das Reich unit, which was complicit in war crimes and human rights abuses. “It’s pretty much inconceivable that he would either not have known, or not have witnessed, or not been party to those war crimes.”

According to Holocaust Encyclopedia, in June 1944, troops from Das Reich massacred 642 people in the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane, and then destroyed the village. The day before, in retaliation for an attack, Das Reich soldiers hung 99 men from the village of Tulle.

Sure, there isn’t direct evidence of Huber being involved in war crimes, but Berg says in a prosecutorial sense “we absolutely had beyond reasonable doubt”.

“It was such a compelling argument that I’m surprised they were willing to drag their feet for so long and not accept the evidence at face value. However, I appreciate that they need to do, perhaps, their due diligence, and they needed to speak with Huber’s family.”

There’s an argument the decision should have been made more quickly, Berg says. “The important thing is we got to the resolution we needed before the next winter season.”

Well, not quite the whole resolution Berg was after. He’s disappointed Mt Hutt is retaining a plaque with Huber’s name on it.

“Do we say Mt Hutt was founded by an unknown person?” – Paul Anderson

The genesis of Mt Hutt can be traced to 1972. Huber spent the winter by himself in a hut at 2000m above sea level, monitoring weather and plotting ski trails. When the ski field opened the following year, he was the first manager.

The plaque marking the site of Huber’s hut won’t be removed, NZSki boss Anderson says. That’s because it’s a “geographical record”.

Does it have Huber’s name on it, though? Anderson understands it does.

So, Mt Hutt still has a named link to a Nazi officer. Anderson says that’s something it “can’t change” – “that’s actually history”.

“Do we say Mt Hutt was founded by an unknown person?”

He adds it’s not the same as memorialising his name on a restaurant or ski run.

Berg, of the Zionist Federation, says: “It’s a little bit disappointing that they still want the plaque but I’m very pleased with the [overall] outcome.”

It’s worth examining Anderson’s language about Huber’s past. What it shows is a staunchly neutral stance by NZSki on the former SS officer, as opposed to a grovelling reversal.

Anderson says the company listened, with an open mind, to a range of people with a “range of opinions”. Newsroom asked for NZSki’s opinion.

“Our opinion is it’s time to move forward,” Anderson responds. “To be frank, we’re not sure what his history is apart from what Mr Huber himself has disclosed, quite a few years ago now.”

That jars with the opinion of Nazi hunter Dr Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, who told the Jerusalem Post last year: “As a historian, I can state unequivocally that serving in a Waffen-SS unit on the eastern front, there is no way that Mr Huber could possibly not have been aware of the massive atrocities carried out by the SS and the Wehrmacht in the territories of the Soviet Union, where 1.5 million ‘enemies of the Reich’, primarily Jews, were murdered individually during the years 1941-1943.”

Anderson says the “allegations” raised last year were done through the media – while acknowledging Huber’s involvement with the Waffen-SS has been on the record “for a number of years”.

After the last snow season ended, NZSki talked to people “making the allegations”, as well as to customers, and Huber’s family, “to make sure that we were making a balanced decision”.

Was it reluctant to make the change? No, Anderson says, it was open to change – “we’ve been proactive to move forward with it”.

So the simple message is NZSki doesn’t want to be associated with Nazis? “No, it’s just time to move forward.

“We’ve had Mr Huber’s name on the restaurant and on the ski run for some time. There will always be a record of him being the founder of Mt Hutt ski area, but given that we’ve learned in more recent times that some people were offended by his name appearing we’ve just consulted with a bunch of people and decided that on balance it’s time to move forward.”

Does NZSki agree Huber had a shameful past?

“All we know is that he was in the Waffen-SS, and that the Waffen-SS was adjudged to be a criminal organisation. What some of the evidence we’ve seen was careful to say is just by being a member of that Waffen-SS doesn’t mean that a person was a war criminal, so that’s not what we’re saying at all. But we’re just respecting the views of a wide range of people.”

Newsroom asked the Human Rights Commission if it was involved in discussions. It issued an anonymised statement saying it was “encouraged to contribute to an informal process”. “We were pleased to contribute, acknowledge the outcome and have nothing further to add.”

SS and gay persecution

Another group involved behind the scenes was the rainbow community.

Martin King is the Queenstown-based festival director of Winter Pride, which holds events at NZSki mountains Coronet Peak and The Remarkables. King confirms he raised the issue of Huber with NZSki last year. This should be no surprise – SS leader Himmler directed the increasing persecution of gay men in the Third Reich.

King praises NZSki for its collaborative consultation over the issue. “We’re delighted and commend them on the change,” he says.

“None of these issues are straight forward. All organisations in this country – ministries and government departments and schools and churches and sports groups – all have work to do around LGBT inclusion.”

However, there are indications of possible dissatisfaction.

Winter Pride’s schedule on the Queenstown ski fields has only firmed in recent weeks. (Admittedly, the Covid-19 pandemic must have been a factor.)

Also, King has a parallel project, Pride Pledge, which lists companies in the Queenstown-Lakes district that are seen as rainbow-friendly. NZSki is not on the list of “gold-level supporters” or supporting organisations.

In the 2017 Sunday show, Mt Hutt staff member Richie Owen, says: “We owe it to him to never forget him and to carry on his legacy.”

Last year, the ski field’s manager, James McKenzie, told Stuff the ski field was “happy to respect his legacy”. “He made a new life and a new start here and tried to put that behind him.”

Of course Huber wanted to move on, says Hart, of the Holocaust Centre. “Lots of Nazis wanted to move on and leave their past behind them, they didn’t want to find themselves on trial for what they did.

“And I think it’s fine for people to move on when they’re repentant, when they’ve paid the price to society. There are lots of things that Mr Huber could have done to show that he was repentant and to educate people.”

Berg, the Zionist Federation president, says Huber could have approached the Holocaust Centre, told his story and apologised. “Had he made any gesture to the community at any stage in his life here you could then say, well, actually this was someone who later on in life realised that what he’d done was wrong. But that never, ever happened.”

Hart cuts Mt Hutt a little slack for perhaps not knowing the full extent of Huber’s background when it named the slope and restaurant after him. Also, it was probably a difficult subject to broach with his family, she says.

“But just because things are difficult doesn’t mean that you can’t do the right thing.”

It’s less than a month since the death of Hart’s mother – Inge Woolf, a Holocaust survivor who founded the NZ Holocaust Centre. As her obituary says, Woolf was surrounded by tragedy “but her life was a case study in tolerance, and support for humanity and all its diversity”.

Hart says her mother employed enormous amounts of her energy teaching people about where hate starts and where it can end up.

“It was really hard for her to do that but she did it because she wanted to really make a difference to New Zealand and make this a better place. And those are the kinds of people we should be naming things after. Those are the kinds of people we should be honouring.”

* This story has been corrected to state Richie Owen was a Mt Hutt staff member, not its manager

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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