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The Guardian: 98-year-old Ukrainian Nazi received a standing ovation in Canada

25-9-2023 |

Canada has become embroiled in an escalating political controversy after members of its House of Commons were encouraged to join in a standing ovation for an individual who fought in Ukraine with a Nazi military unit accused of war crimes during the second world war.

The ovation took place shortly after Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, delivered an address to the parliament on Friday, when the assembly’s speaker, Anthony Rota, called lawmakers’ attention to 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka, whom he described as a “war hero” who fought for the First Ukrainian Division.

Yaroslav Hunka waits for the arrival of the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in the House of Commons in Canada
Photo: Patrick Doyle / AP

Images from the Canadian parliament showed Zelenskiy and the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, standing and applauding Hunka, in scenes condemned by Jewish groups. As lawmakers cheered, Zelenskiy raised his fist in acknowledgment as Hunka saluted from the gallery during two separate standing ovations.

The Kremlin on Monday called the incident “outrageous” and pictures of Zelenskiy were quickly seized on by pro-Kremlin social media accounts.

Critics said the First Ukrainian Division was better known as the Waffen-SS “Galicia” Division or the SS 14th Waffen Division, a volunteer unit that was under the command of the Nazis.

The decision to allow about 600 members of the division to live in Canada after the second world war has long been a source of controversy in Canada, and was the subject of a government commission of inquiry in the 1980s into whether Canada had become a haven for war criminals.

Members of the division were accused of killing Polish and Jewish civilians. The Nuremberg tribunals found the Waffen-SS guilty as an organisation of war crimes but not the Galicia division.

At the weekend, Rota issued a statement apologising for what occurred. “In my remarks following the address of the president of Ukraine, I recognised an individual in the gallery. I have subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision to do so,” he said.

He added that his fellow parliament members and the Ukraine delegation were not aware of his plan to recognise Hunka.

“I particularly want to extend my deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world. I accept full responsibility for my action,” Rota said.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a Canadian Jewish group, said it was “deeply troubled” that a veteran of a Nazi division that participated in the genocide of Jews had been celebrated.

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies issued a statement on Sunday saying the division “was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable”.

Zelenskiy was in Ottawa to bolster support from western allies for Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion. Vladimir Putin has painted his enemies in Ukraine as “neo-Nazis” even though Zelenskiy is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust.

The row also raises uncomfortable questions surrounding the memorialising of prominent Ukrainian figures who fought alongside Nazi forces during the war.

In his speech to Canadian lawmakers, Zelenskiy noted that the city of Edmonton was the first to commemorate victims of the Holodomor, the mass famine inflicted on Ukrainians that killed millions in the early 1930s. The city erected a memorial in 1983 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the famine.

But within the city there are two other memorials, one partially funded by taxpayers, that have come under greater scrutiny in recent years. Within the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex, a bust depicts Roman Shukhevych, a known Nazi collaborator linked to massacres of Polish civilians. A second statue dedicated to the Waffen-SS Galicia division is in an Edmonton cemetery.

In 1985, Canada’s then prime minister, Brian Mulroney, established the commission of inquiry on war criminals in Canada after an MP claimed the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele may be in the country.

On the issue of the Galicia division, the commission’s head, Jules Deschênes, ruled that members “should not be indicted as a group”.

“The members of Galicia division were individually screened for security purposes before admission to Canada. Charges of war crimes of Galicia division have never been substantiated, either in 1950 when they were first preferred, or in 1984 when they were renewed, or before this commission.”

Source: The Guardian