After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered an address in Canada’s House of Commons on Friday, House Speaker Anthony Rota presented Yaroslav Hunka, a 98-year-old World War II veteran, to the parliament. Hunka was introduced as a Canadian citizen and Ukrainian war hero who fought for the First Ukrainian Division and received two rousing standing ovations from the lawmakers.
It was later revealed that Hunka had served in the First Ukrainian Division, also called the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, and the SS 14th Waffen Division. The Galicia Division was formed by the Nazis in 1943 from Ukrainian volunteers. Some 80,000 Ukrainians volunteered to join the SS, but only 53,000 men qualified to serve in the SS division. Members of this division were involved in the mass murder of Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians during the war, and many of them did so even before they joined this division. The unit was renamed the First Ukrainian Division before surrendering to the Western Allies in 1945.
In total, the Nazi army enlisted 250,000 native Ukrainians.
After the war, the Waffen SS was declared a criminal organization at the Nuremberg Trials but the Galicia Division was not specifically found guilty of any war crimes by any war tribunal or commission.
“In my remarks following the address of the President of Ukraine, I recognized an individual in the gallery. I have subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision to do so,” Rota said in a statement, adding, “I particularly want to extend my deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world. I accept full responsibility for my action.”
On Tuesday, Rota resigned from his position.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies issued a statement Sunday saying the speaker’s adulatory remarks ignored “the horrific fact that Hunka served in the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, a Nazi military unit whose crimes against humanity during the Holocaust are well-documented… [It] was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable.”
“An apology is owed to every Holocaust survivor and veteran of the Second World War who fought the Nazis, and an explanation must be provided as to how this individual entered the hallowed halls of Canadian Parliament and received recognition from the Speaker of the House and a standing ovation,” it said in a statement.
B’nai Brith Canada’s CEO, Michael Mostyn, said it was outrageous that Parliament honored a former member of a Nazi unit, saying Ukrainian “ultra-nationalist ideologues” who volunteered for the Galicia Division “dreamed of an ethnically homogenous Ukrainian state and endorsed the idea of ethnic cleansing.”
“We understand an apology is forthcoming. We expect a meaningful apology. Parliament owes an apology to all Canadians for this outrage, and a detailed explanation as to how this could possibly have taken place at the center of Canadian democracy,” Mostyn said.
Polish Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek said he would seek Hunka’s extradition.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the episode showed a careless disregard for historical truth, and that the memory of Nazi crimes must be preserved.
“Such sloppiness of memory is outrageous,” Peskov told reporters. “Many Western countries, including Canada, have raised a young generation that does not know who fought whom or what happened during the Second World War. And they know nothing about the threat of fascism.”
Canada has exhibited support for the Ukrainian Nazi Division in other settings. There are monuments to the unit at cemeteries in both Alberta and Oakville, Ont., both of which avoid any mention of its SS origins, instead referring to it as the 1st Ukrainian Division of the Ukrainian National Army. Attempts to raise the connection between the Galicia Division and the Nazis have been labeled as misinformation by Global Affairs Canada.
It is important to note that after WWII, Canada’s immigration policy prohibited any veteran of the German Wehrmacht or the SS from becoming a citizen. However, in 1950, a cabinet-level exemption opened Canada’s doors to former members of the Galicia Division and about 600 settled in Canada.
The whitewashing of Ukraine’s Nazi connections is also an issue in the US. In 2018, more than 50 members of the US Congress condemned the government of Ukraine’s ongoing efforts to glorify “Nazi collaborators,” including members of the Galicia Division.
“It’s particularly troubling that much of the Nazi glorification in Ukraine is government-supported,” noted the letter to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
A cross dedicated to the division is placed in Saint Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Cemetery, in Elkins Park, in the suburb of Philadelphia. The American Jewish Committee declared that the monument should be removed.
Another monument is in Warren, Michigan, on the side of a Ukrainian credit union building. The mayor of the city, James R. Fouts, once informed of the monument, stated that: “There’s not even a minute chance that we would support anything like this.”