columnHolocaust & Holocaust Survivors

Canada’s Ukrainian Nazi embarrassment was no accident

The cheers for a collaborator highlighted something the media and foreign-policy establishment are ignoring: Ukrainian nationalism’s ongoing antisemitism problem.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on May 8, 2022. Credit: Official website/President of Ukraine (president.gov.ua), via Wikimedia Commons.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on May 8, 2022. Credit: Official website/President of Ukraine (president.gov.ua), via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It was all a big mistake. And no one important was to blame. So, the only thing to do is to just move along, pretend it never happened and, of course, denounce anyone who might consider it a reason to ask some inconvenient questions. But maybe some questions need to be asked.

I’m referring to the embarrassing scene that took place at Canada’s House of Commons last week when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was hosting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his wife, Olena Zelenska. As part of the Ukraine lovefest, Anthony Rota, the Speaker of the House, introduced a guest in the gallery: 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka of North Bay, Ontario. He described Hunka, who lives in the district that Rota represents in Ottawa, as a war hero “who fought [for] Ukrainian independence against the Russians and continues to support the troops today. “He’s a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service,” Rota said. At that point, all assembled rose to applaud Hunka with Zelenskyy raising his fist in salute to him.

But the good feelings vanished in the coming days when Jewish groups, among others, pointed out that those fighting for Ukrainian independence during World War II were allies and collaborators with the Nazis. It turned out that Hunka was a member of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS.

Once this became known, Trudeau profusely apologized. Rota resigned as Speaker, taking full responsibility for the incident and saying he had consulted with no one, including Trudeau and Zelenskyy, about highlighting Hunka’s presence. Though, interestingly, Zelenskyy has said nothing about the incident, let alone apologizing for saluting a Nazi collaborator.

And as far as the formidable forces within the corporate media that support Ukraine are concerned, that is all that needs to be said about the incident. The widespread Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis is not only something that most people don’t want to acknowledge. Those who do mention it are accused of being pro-Russian or pro-Putin. That’s especially true since Russian President Vladimir Putin has, at least in part, justified his illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine on the bogus grounds that he’s trying to “de-Nazify” it.

The conventional wisdom has bought into the notion that Zelenskyy is a latter-day Winston Churchill and that Putin’s Russia is analogous to the Nazis or as a great threat to the West as the Soviet Union once was. That’s why any mention of the past—let alone the fact that for centuries, Ukrainian nationalism has been inextricably linked with antisemitism—is considered off-limits for commentary.

This comes as the enormous American financial commitment to Ukraine seems to be escalating again and justified as either a righteous defense of democracy or on the more cynical grounds that it’s a cheap way to undermine Russia. There is something odd about a country that is seemingly unable to defend its own southern border against an unprecedented surge of illegal immigration—bringing misery to both border communities and urban areas elsewhere—that is simultaneously pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into a war that seems as endless as it is unwinnable. Those who have the temerity to raise this fact are dismissed as uninformed or ill-intentioned. But the rigid unwillingness to discuss either the Ukrainian present or past, lest it be seen as anything other than an embattled outpost of Western democracy, is itself a reason to raise questions.

After Russia’s illegal invasion in February 2022, sympathy for Ukraine understandably surged, especially as reports about Russian atrocities proliferated. Supporters of the war among liberals and the Washington Republican establishment both like to pretend that democracy is the issue at stake in Ukraine.

The truth about Zelenskyy’s Ukraine is more complicated than that. Russia’s motives in this war are entirely bad. But Ukraine remains a deeply corrupt country, where increasing power is being given to its security services, whose record of conduct is no more laudable than those of its opponents. Dissent against Zelenskyy’s government is punished—something that was made clear by his ban on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Nor has he any plans for new elections.

A history of antisemitism

Nor did we need the cheers for Hunka to know that Ukraine has an antisemitism problem. That was made clear in a troubling story published in The New York Times back in June about the ubiquitous wearing of insignia and symbols associated with the Nazis and their allies among the troops presently fighting for Ukraine.

Ukrainians wear these symbols for a reason. Its nationalist movement has been linked to antisemitism since its beginnings.

The Ukrainian state honors the memory of Bohdan Khmelnitsky, the 17th-century leader of Ukrainian Cossacks who was responsible for the massacres of Ukrainian and Polish Jews. This was the worst disaster to befall European Jewry from the Crusades to the Holocaust; historians estimate that more than 100,000 Jews were slaughtered by Khmelnitsky’s followers while thousands of others were enslaved or held for ransom. Yet the current Ukrainian republic titled its highest military honor after Khmelnitsky in 1995, and its Jewish president, who is protected by a unit named after the Cossack murderer, has awarded it to his soldiers.

The Ukrainians also honor the memory of more recent pogromists like Symon Petlura, who led pogroms that were responsible for the deaths of as many as 70,000 Jews or Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. Ukrainians actively participated in the murder of the Jews, taking a principal role in atrocities like the Babi Yar massacre, whose 82nd anniversary is observed this week.

The events of the Holocaust were highlighted last year by Zelenskyy during his virtual speech to the Knesset. As part of his effort to pressure Israel to abandon its own interests and join the war against Russia, he claimed that Russia’s invasion was morally equivalent to the Holocaust and then made the gobsmackingly false assertion that Ukrainians had stood in solidarity with the Jews of their country, thus obligating Israelis to rally to Ukraine today.

This was the sort of statement that, had it been uttered by anyone else, would have been rightly labeled as Holocaust denial. But since Zelenskyy is now the new Churchill, virtually everyone in the West, including the organized Jewish world, gave him a pass for this lie.

Zelenskyy’s election as Ukraine’s president is considered proof that the country’s attitude towards Jews is changing. But his willingness to spread falsehoods about the Holocaust was also evidence that Ukrainian politics make it impossible for him to reject its history of antisemitism.

Why they didn’t face justice

That brings us back to last week’s Canadian farce.

Hunka’s SS unit was used by the Germans to suppress anti-Nazi partisans and killed many Russians, Poles and citizens of the former Yugoslavia.

The SS was declared to be a criminal organization, whose members were an integral part of the Holocaust, at the Nuremberg Trials. But postwar politics enabled the members of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division to get a pass. Having been fortunate to surrender to the British rather than the Soviets, its members were spared investigations. Thanks, in part, to intervention by the Vatican, whose representative declared them to be “good Catholics and anti-Communists,” they were spared repatriation to the Soviet Union, where they would have faced rough justice. As a result, most of them immigrated to Canada and the United Kingdom.

Nor was that the end of the story. Canada has never fully admitted its fault in providing a haven for ex-Nazis. A commission in the 1980s declared that members of the unit should not be indicted on the dubious grounds that not enough proof had been brought forward to establish their guilt, even though no serious investigation of their crimes was ever carried out. Monuments to them erected by the Ukrainian community exist in both Canada and the United States. Of even greater interest is the fact that their insignia are among those worn by contemporary Ukrainian soldiers, and streets are named in honor of the unit in at least two Ukrainian cities.

Seen in that light, maybe what happened in Canada requires greater scrutiny. Poland certainly thinks so. Though resolutely anti-Russian, the Poles have demanded that Hunka be extradited so as to face justice for the crimes committed by the Ukrainian SS.

Raising this doesn’t excuse Russia. But it does undermine the fanciful claims about the cause of Ukraine being indistinguishable from that of Western democracy.

Yet those who believe that sensible calls for the United States to be working to end the war rather than prolong it are still damned as Putin’s followers. Neither Kyiv nor Moscow has the ability to do anything but continue the slaughter. Unless Americans want to continue wasting hundreds of billions of dollars a year for the foreseeable future on this tragedy, they should be encouraging the Biden administration to work for compromise peace terms that will, sooner or later, have to be accepted by both sides. Doing so won’t endanger Western Europe, which stands in no peril from a weak Russia that couldn’t manage to conquer Ukraine. Nor will it help China, whose strategic position is enhanced by the fact that America’s armed forces have been stripped of armaments for Ukraine’s sake.

Do Americans really think it is justified to persist in funding a war that doesn’t directly involve U.S. national interests in order to go on valorizing a government tainted by its inability to confront antisemitism just to spite their old Russian foe? Ukraine’s failure to confront its past may not invalidate its right to independence, but it does call into question a policy that commits American money and arms to indefinitely continue a war that has no end in sight.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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