Traumatizing for some, shameful for everyone
In February 2022, Russia attacked Ukraine, and the world around us changed forever. While no one is suffering the consequences of this madness more than the people of Ukraine, no one can deny that the whole world is feeling the fallout and the consequences.
This could be in the form of rising prices, changing geopolitics, and at least far away in the back of our minds, the possibility of nuclear war. Many feel we are on the brink of a Third World War; this time everyone has the bomb, and it is not clear anyone has a proper enough understanding of the destruction it would cause to not use it.
From the very beginning of the war, NATO countries have been keen to help Ukraine through proxy. Russia is facing unprecedented sanctions, but clearly pushing back by trying to form their own power bloc in the world with China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. There are theories about how the recent deterioration in relation between India and Canada has more to do with the latter’s cooperation with Russia than anything else. As always, the United States is believed to be the puppet masters controlling the other NATO members as well as non-members who want to ever again do business with the largest consumer market in the world.
But all of that is, and I do not mean this in a disparaging way, politics. It is a full-time job, it takes years of experience, and more often than not, an ability to suppress every rational impulse and enter collaborations with people you promised never to interact with last election season. As the saying goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows. Today, though, I am not thinking about politics.
A little over a week ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the Canadian Parliament. After speeches by Zelenskyy and the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Anthony Rota, decided to call upon the house to honour a man in the guest gallery. Yaroslav Hunka, a 98-year-old Ukrainian-Canadian, was hailed as a Ukrainian hero and a Canadian hero, and clearly enjoyed and responded to the applause. It was mentioned that he was a Second World War veteran, but to the best of my knowledge, no other information was mentioned on Friday, September 22, the day of the visit.
Less than a day later, Jewish-Canadians, including some who are Members of Parliament, were surprised and horrified to hear that Yaroslav Hunka was indeed a Second World War veteran. He fought against Russia, having volunteered for the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division, a military unit that was a part of the SS. In layman’s terms, Hunka fought for, and I am going to insist was, a Nazi. What might be worse, the unit was formed using those who volunteered to join the SS. In other words, they were not, as some claim about the German SS soldiers, “just following orders.”
Not that simply following the order to lead your fellow man into cattle cars and gas chambers is a great defense, but I find it important to emphasize, Hunka’s division consisted of people who chose, and were not commanded. Most of this information came to light on September 23, a day before Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a day that calls for soul-searching and true repentance. That was a little harder this year, with the feeling of being wronged when someone who chose to side with Nazis was being applauded and honoured in the nation’s parliament.
But there is no point in feeling righteous anger. Instead, I want to take the opportunity to speak to some of the conversations that have been happening about this incident. I want to acknowledge that the Speaker of the House has already owned up to having made a mistake and has stepped down from his position. I also believe that the Prime Minister should at least acknowledge that someone in his staff dropped the ball, because it is hard for me to believe that one can simply head on over to the parliament without any vetting. I mean, people with a name like mine can hardly go to the bank without at least two IDs and three references. How can it be that a former Nazi can just be invited to the parliament without the simple question – “which side were you fighting for?”
Assuming they did know he fought against Russia, all that does is make me wonder if people know so little history these days, or care so little for the truth. Sure, today Russia is the “bad guy.” But during the Second World War, for at least a brief period, the former Soviet Union stepped up to help the Allied Forces overcome the evil of the Third Reich. We are at a point in time where most Holocaust survivors are in their 90s. In another decade, maybe fifteen years, there will be no survivors left. If we are already forgetting who was on what side, the future does not seem too promising. Forgetting about the last Holocaust is the seemingly harmless first step to letting the next one happen.
Then there are those that are claiming Hunka just made a choice to protect his homeland from the Nazis. Maybe I am wrong here. Maybe I am driven by either emotion, or the benefit of hindsight, but there are many who made that extremely hard choice, and chose not to help the Nazis. From the nameless German man who did not join in saluting the Fuhrer, to the German families that sheltered their Jewish neighbors, the Second World War is filled with stories of the simple bravery by ordinary humans.
Hunka does not get a pass for having made some tough choice, when the choice he made was to side with the army that was executing the Final Solution for Europe’s Jewish Problem. Your moral compass needs to be completely haywire to try and pass that off as a difficult choice. Many died for their defiance of the SS. Hunka lives on, 98 years old, because he chose to become one of them. Hunka is honored, in Canada’s parliament, in what is an insult to Canada’s veterans and the Canadian Jewish community.
Nor is this the first time a problematic incident like this has happened. In January 2023, there was celebration in the streets of Ukraine to mark the 114th birthday of Ukrainian ultranationalist Stepan Bandera. The same Bandera who led a radical organization called Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a group accused of having helped the Nazis make the Holocaust happen. It does make one wonder why great national heroes of a nation seem to be Nazis.
The Jewish people live with the trauma of the Holocaust. They mark their holy days by saying a prayer of mourning for the six million, many of whom have no living family to say it for them. The Jewish people respect Ukraine’s struggle for Independence, and do not want to see a world where might makes right. But when Nazis are celebrated, when Nazis live a quaint life somewhere in Ontario and are invited to the parliament, the Jewish people also feel wronged, and wonder whether these are all omens of a darker future.