The president of the Ukrainian National Federation of Canada is defending a Second World War veteran of a Nazi unit who was recently lauded as a hero in Canada's Parliament.
Jurij Klufas has not met 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka but says the veteran is being treated unfairly. He says Hunka was fighting for Ukraine — not Germany — and that countries, including Canada, have cleared his division of war crimes.
"If you're a soldier doesn't mean you're a member of a certain party from the country," Klufas said Friday in a phone interview. "In this case, the senior gentleman here was a soldier, in his understanding, fighting for Ukraine."
Hunka received a standing ovation in the House of Commons on Sept. 22 after being introduced by the Speaker as "a Ukrainian hero and a Canadian hero'' during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit to Ottawa.
The incident drew widespread international criticism after it was revealed Hunka was a member of a mostly volunteer unit created by the Nazis to fight the Soviet Union. The revelation forced the resignation of Anthony Rota as Speaker and an apology on behalf of Parliament by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Ivan Katchanovski, a Ukrainian-Canadian political science professor at the University of Ottawa, says the actions of Hunka's Waffen-SS Galicia Division have been "whitewashed" in Canada.
He says supporters have tried to present the division as a patriotic Ukrainian force despite the fact it collaborated with Nazis and was involved in a variety of atrocities, including the killings of Jews, Ukrainians and Poles.
"They represent this division as fighting not for Nazi Germany, but fighting for Ukrainian independence, even though there was never any opportunity to fight for any Ukrainian independence," he said. "They were fighting under German command until the end of World War II."
He said the heroic interpretation is particularly prevalent in Canada, where many of the division's members immigrated under a controversial process that was opposed by Jewish groups.
In 1950, the federal cabinet decided to allow Ukrainians living in the United Kingdom to come to Canada “notwithstanding their service in the German army," as long as they went through a security screening.
A 1986 commission report on war criminals living in Canada found there were about 600 former members of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division living in Canada at the time.
But Justice Jules Deschênes, who led the commission, said membership in the division did not in itself constitute a crime, and that "charges of war crimes against members of the 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."
Jewish groups have noted the existence of at least two Canadian monuments to the division, in Oakville, Ont., and in Edmonton.
In response to questions about Hunka, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress said Thursday that the people of present-day Ukraine, including its Jewish population, suffered successive occupations by "foreign empires and colonizers" going back centuries.
"There are difficult and painful pages in the shared history of the communities who made their home in Ukraine," congress CEO Ihor Michalchyshyn said in a statement. "The UCC acknowledges that recent events that brought these pages to the forefront have caused pain and anguish."
Frank Sysyn, a history professorat the University of Alberta, says it's accurate to say that Hunka was not a Nazi, despite fighting for Nazi Germany, because non-Germans weren't allowed to join the party.
He said Canada's choice to allow veterans of the unit to live out their lives in the country ultimately came down to a decision that membership in the unit was not reason enough to prosecute someone, if there was no proof they committed individual crimes. Ukrainians, he added, are far from the only group of postwar immigrants to benefit from such an approach.
"Most of our Italian immigrants of the 1950s, if they were men of a certain age, had probably been in the Italian army and fought for Fascist Italy," said Sysyn, who is a member of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.
John-Paul Himka, a University of Alberta professor emeritus and the author of a book about Ukrainians and the Holocaust, said many of the young men who joined the Galicia division in 1943 were motivated by the atrocities they witnessed under Soviet occupation, including the murder of thousands of political prisoners and mass deportations to labour camps.
“So for the people in this region, the Soviets were the nightmare and the Germans were relatively tolerable," he said. "So that, I think, explains why so many of them thought that what they were doing fighting against the Soviets was patriotic.”
He said some Galician units did participate in atrocities, including murders in Polish villages. The division had an antisemitic newspaper and accepted into its ranks “policemen who had been very important in the Holocaust, who had rounded up Jews for execution and sometimes executed Jews themselves," he said.
He blames the Ukrainian community for failing to fully acknowledge and grapple with the country's Second World War history, including Nazi ties. However, he said many Canadians are guilty of not learning enough about the truths of the war on the Eastern front, including the rapes and murders perpetrated by the Soviets on the Allied side.
Klufas blames the branding of Hunka as a Nazi on "Russian disinformation," adding, "the fact that he was a soldier does not mean that he was a Nazi." He also said there was nothing wrong with Parliament applauding a man "who fought for his country." However, he conceded that it "maybe wasn't correct" in the circumstances, given that the people there didn't fully understand the issue.