It appeared to be a touching and timely tribute from Canadian lawmakers to a 98-year-old war hero who fought for Ukraine’s independence in World War II. But it soon emerged that the man was actually part of a notorious Nazi unit, prompting anger at the standing ovation he received in the presence of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Yaroslav Hunka wiped tears from his eyes as he accepted a rousing endorsement from Canada’s House of Commons on Friday. He was singled out by speaker Anthony Rota, who called him a “hero” after a speech by the visiting Ukrainian leader, who in turn raised his fist to applause.
But Rota apologized Sunday after saying he “later became aware of additional information” about Hunka’s past.
The Ukrainian nonagenarian actually fought against the Soviet Union, but as part of the SS’s 14th Waffen Grenadier Division, “a Nazi military unit whose crimes against humanity during the Holocaust are well documented,” according to the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Canadian human rights group that promotes Holocaust awareness and combats anti-Semitism.
The center said in a statement on Sunday it was “deeply disturbed” by Hunka’s recognition in Parliament and “even more outraged” that he received a standing ovation.
“The fact that a veteran who served in a Nazi military unit was invited to Parliament and received a standing ovation is shocking,” it said. Hunka’s unit, also known as the First Ukrainian Division, was “responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malevolence that is unimaginable.”
Another Canada-based advocacy group, the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said it was “deeply troubled and troubled.” Michael Mostyn, CEO of the Jewish human rights organization B’nai Brith Canada, the invitation shouted and gave an ovation “More than outrageous.”
Rota, the House of Commons speaker, said he was solely responsible for inviting Hunka, who lives in the region he represents, suggesting that neither Zelensky nor Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knew about it.
“I would particularly like to apologize to the Jewish communities in Canada and around the world,” the spokesman said in a statement. “I take full responsibility for my actions.”
Zelensky, who is Jewish, said members of his family were killed during the Holocaust. NBC News has reached out to his office for comment.
Trudeau’s office said in a statement that Rota had apologized and taken full responsibility.
“That was right,” the statement said. “The Prime Minister’s Office and the Ukrainian delegation were not informed in advance of the invitation or recognition.”
MPs from all parties, not just Trudeau’s Liberal Party, rose to applaud Hunka. A Conservative Party spokesman said the party was not aware of his past at this time, The Associated Press reported.
Hunka could not immediately be reached for comment, the AP said.
Russia resorts to “outrageous” recognition
The issue of Nazis and right-wing extremist ideology is particularly sensitive for Ukraine.
One of the nebulous justifications given by Russian President Vladimir Putin for invading his former Soviet neighbor is that he wants to “denazify” Ukraine, which he says is ruled by neo-Nazis backed by the West.
There is little evidence for this claim. But Russian officials quickly seized on Hunka’s ovation as evidence of this the right-wing extremist tendencies of Ukraine and its supporters.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the spectacle “abhorrent” and accused Canadians of “such a reckless attitude towards memory” at his daily briefing to reporters on Monday.
“A whole new generation has grown up in Canada that is unaware of fascism and Nazi crimes,” he said, “and we are seeing a resurgence of Nazism here and there, such as in Ukraine.”
Russian Ambassador to Canada Oleg Stepanov said the former Nazi’s invitation to parliament was no coincidence and called the Canadian government “essentially the personification of neoliberal fascism,” according to Russian news agency RIA.
And Russia’s permanent representative in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, called it a “shameful day for Canada,” the news agency reported.
As in many other countries, including Russia, there are some far-right elements in Ukraine. In particular, the Azov Battalion, which was incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard, has a history of far-right and white supremacist trappings and beliefs.
Prominent World War II-era nationalist figures such as Stepan Bandera also continue to receive support, and many revere him as a freedom fighter against the Soviets, although he was also a Nazi collaborator.
Shortly before World War II, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and millions of Ukrainians fought for the Red Army against Nazi Germany. At this time, the country also had one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe – a population long subjected to persecution and pogroms.
When the country was invaded by German forces in 1941, many Ukrainian nationalists hailed them as liberators from the Soviet yoke, according to Yad Vashem, the world center for Holocaust memorials. “Many Ukrainians and some of the prisoners of war willingly joined German relief units,” it said.
This cooperation also extended to the “Holocaust of Bullets”: the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews, who, according to the United States Holocaust, were shot by Germans along with willing Ukrainians and Russians near their homes rather than in camps were deported memorial museum.