Political controversy has increased in Canada after members of the House of Commons were encouraged to join in a standing ovation in honor of a veteran who fought in Ukraine during World War II with a Nazi military unit accused of crimes of violence. war.
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The applause took place shortly after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave a speech in Parliament last Friday. Its president, Anthony Rota, was the one who drew the attention of legislators to the presence of Yaroslav Hunka, 98, whom he described as a “war hero” who fought in the First Ukrainian Division.
Images from Parliament itself showed Zelensky and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau standing and applauding Hunka, scenes that have been condemned by Jewish groups. While the legislators applauded, Zelensky raised his fist in recognition and Hunka saluted from the rostrum during two separate applauses.
The Kremlin on Monday described the incident as “outrageous” and pro-Russian accounts on social media quickly echoed Zelensky’s photographs.
A noted Nazi division
Critics have noted that the First Ukrainian Division was better known as the Waffen-SS “Galicia” Division or the 14th Waffen SS Division, a volunteer unit that was under the command of the Nazis.
The decision to allow some 600 members of that division to reside in Canada after the Second World War has long been a source of controversy in this country and was the subject of a government commission of inquiry in the 1980s, in which It was questioned whether Canada had become a haven for war criminals.
Members of that division have been accused of killing Jewish Polish citizens. At the Nuremberg trials, the Waffen-SS was recognized as a war crimes organization, but not the Galicia division in particular.
Over the weekend, Rota issued a statement apologizing for what happened: “In my speech after the President of Ukraine’s speech, I recognized a person in the gallery. Later I learned more information [sobre esa persona] “That makes me regret my decision,” he said in the text.
He added that the other parliamentarians and the Ukrainian delegation were unaware of his plan to recognize Hunka in the Chamber. Rota also noted that Hunka was from his district. “I want to offer my sincerest apologies to the Jewish communities in Canada and around the world. “I take full responsibility for my action,” she stated.
Hunka could not be reached for comment. In a social media post by her daughter-in-law, she can be seen “waiting in the reception room for Trudeau and Zelensky,” she said.
For its part, the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a Canadian Jewish group, said it was “deeply concerned” that a veteran of a Nazi division who participated in the genocide of Jews had been recognized. The Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies issued a statement Sunday saying the division “was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with an unimaginable level of brutality and malice.”
And he added: “An apology is owed to all Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans who fought against the Nazis, and an explanation must be given as to how this individual entered the hallowed halls of the Canadian Parliament and received recognition from the Speaker of the House. and a standing ovation.”
Jewish groups have long campaigned against two memorials in Canada related to Ukrainians who fought on the German side. Canadian Conservative opposition leader Pierre Poilievre has also called on Trudeau to apologize.
Trudeau’s office has said Rota had apologized and accepted full responsibility for extending the invitation to Hunka and for the recognition in Parliament. “It was what had to be done,” he said. “There was no advance notice to the Prime Minister’s office or the Ukrainian delegation of the invitation or recognition” to Hunka.
The controversy of the Ukrainian volunteers
Dominique Arel, professor of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa, told the Canadian public broadcaster CBC that the division of which Hunka was a part had attracted thousands of Ukrainian volunteers, many of whom enlisted in the hope of achieving independence. from Ukraine. Only Germans from Germany could fight in that country’s army, Arel explained, so non-German volunteers who believed in Nazi goals or sought to achieve their ends through Nazi power were organized into SS divisions.
“Here we have the question of symbolism, the optics of serving in a military unit whose logo is that of what was possibly the largest criminal organization of the 20th century… so obviously the optics are not good.”
Zelensky was in Ottawa to reinforce Western allies’ support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion. Vladimir Putin has called his enemies in Ukraine “neo-Nazis,” even though Zelensky is Jewish and lost family members in the Holocaust.
The controversy also raises uncomfortable questions surrounding the commemoration of prominent Ukrainian figures who fought alongside Nazi forces during the war. In his speech to Canadian lawmakers, Zelensky noted that the city of Edmonton was the first to commemorate the victims of the Holodomor, the mass famine imposed by the USSR on Ukrainians, millions of whom died in the early 1930s. The city erected a monument in 1983 in memory of the 50th anniversary of the famine.
But within the city there are two other memorials – one of them partially funded by taxpayers – that have come under increased scrutiny in recent years. In the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex, a bust represents Roman Shukhevych, a known Nazi collaborator linked to massacres of Polish civilians. A second statue dedicated to the “Galicia” division of the Waffen-SS stands in an Edmonton cemetery.
In July 2020, “Nazi war monument” was spray written on a cenotaph commemorating soldiers of the “Galicia” division in an Ontario cemetery.
In 1985, then-Prime Minister of Canada Brian Mulroney created the Commission of Inquiry into War Criminals in Canada after an MP claimed that Nazi doctor Josef Mengele may have taken refuge in the country.
Specifically, on the issue of the “Galicia” division, the head of that investigative commission, Jules Deschênes, ruled that the members “should not be indicted as a group.”
“Members of the Galicia division were individually screened for security reasons prior to their admission to Canada. The accusations of war crimes against the Galicia division have never been corroborated, neither in 1950, when they were first presented, nor in 1984, when they were renewed, nor before this commission.
Translated by Francesca Cicardi.