On the eve of Yom Kippur, Canadians and people around the world were shocked to learn that Ukrainian Waffen SS veteran Yaroslav Hunka was given two standing ovations in the hallowed halls of Canada’s House of Commons. Every member of parliament in attendance stood and applauded enthusiastically.
When I initially heard the news, I dismissed it as another slur by far-right and far-left activists disparaging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. I reflexively recoil from labeling political opponents as Nazis, whoever may be making such claims. In my view, such attacks trivialize the Holocaust.
However, I was quickly inundated by reports of the incident online and on social media. It became obvious that the initial reports were true. I was dumbfounded, but I immediately understood that the invitation to the Nazi in question was a horrible mistake. As a Canadian Jew born barely a decade after the end of World War II, I know that Canada is not an overtly prejudiced nation.
Nonetheless, the debacle affected me on many levels. I am a proud Canadian, but my parents are Holocaust survivors from the town of Satu Mare in Romania, which is only 17 miles from the western Ukrainian border. My mother was the sole member of her extended family who survived deportation to Auschwitz.
I have lived in the Bloor West Village neighborhood of Toronto for over a decade. It is a heavily Ukrainian area. When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, I could not drive a hundred yards from my home without seeing a car bearing a Ukrainian flag. My Ukrainian neighbors are kind and decent people. There have been no hate crimes committed by Ukrainian-Canadians against Jews or any other group that I am aware of.
I know, however, that among some Ukrainians there is a genuine belief that those who joined the SS during World War II were heroes. This is because of a delusional narrative embraced by some of the children and grandchildren of Ukrainian Nazis and others. The narrative holds that the communists of the USSR were somehow worse than the Nazis because more people died under communist regimes than in the Holocaust.
The narrative involves the Holodomor, an artificial famine engineered by Stalin in the early 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians. The Holodomor weighs heavily on the psyche of Ukrainians, just as the Holocaust does for Jews, but some have exploited the memory of the catastrophe to justify antisemitism. They claim that because some of the top officials in the Stalin regime were Jews, Ukrainian resentment of all Jews is somehow understandable. In addition, they hold that Jews overemphasize the Holocaust to sully the reputation of Ukraine while ignoring the Holodomor.
It is troubling that leaders of Canada’s Ukrainian community have been deafeningly silent on this matter. They should simply state that their community does not support Nazis or antisemitism. This is, for the most part, the truth.
People around the world are asking how Canada could have allowed a Nazi to be feted in its own parliament. The government and state-funded media appear to be pointing to the speaker of the House of Commons as the culprit, but this is gaslighting. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in charge and he bears responsibility. This is just another debacle for his government.
More direct responsibility may lie with Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister and minister of finance, who is essentially the second most powerful politician in Canada. It would be stunningly naïve to imagine that Freeland did not know about Hunka’s shady past. Freeland has been a staunch Ukrainian nationalist for her entire adult life and her grandfather was a Nazi propagandist who benefited from the theft of a Jewish man’s property. At a public march, she once proudly displayed a banner displaying the colors of World War II-era Ukrainian Nazi Stephan Bandera’s movement. She likely felt that, after almost 80 years, the reputation of men like Hunka had been rehabilitated.
She was wrong. Her attempt to legitimize a former Nazi has infuriated Canadians of all persuasions. Canadians realized for the first time that their country had welcomed in Ukrainian Nazis the same way Argentina welcomed German Nazis. We have always viewed ourselves as a nice people. Now we are forced to ask: Would a nice people celebrate a Nazi thug?