Jewish advocacy groups have reacted with fury after Volodymyr Zelensky and Justin Trudeau were among those who gave a veteran who fought for a Nazi unit during the Second World War a standing ovation.
Yaroslav Hunka fought for the First Ukrainian Division – also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, or the SS 14th Waffen Division – a voluntary unit that was under the command of the Nazis and fought against Russia. Hunka, now 98, was welcomed to Canada’s House of Commons during Zelensky’s visit to Ottawa on Friday.
He was invited by House Speaker Anthony Rota – who has since apologised for the blunder. It’s thought that Trudeau and Zelensky were both unaware of Hunka’s past. Trudeau’s office said the “Speaker of the House has apologized and accepted full responsibility for issuing the invitation”.
Introducing Hunka to the House, Speaker Rota said Hunka was a “Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero” adding “we thank him for all his service”.
Zelensky raised his fist in acknowledgement as Hunka saluted from the gallery during two separate standing ovations. The incident has been condemned by Several Jewish advocacy organizations, reported Canada’s largest privately owned television network, CTV
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies claimed that Hunka’s unit “was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable”.
In a statement issued on Sunday, the group said: “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.”
Rota swiftly apologised. He said: “I have subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision to [honour Hunka]. I wish to make clear that no one, including fellow parliamentarians and the Ukraine delegation, was aware of my intention or of my remarks before I delivered them.
“I particularly want to extend my deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world.” Rota said he accepted “full responsibility” for his actions.
In a statement, the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office said: “The independent Speaker of the House has apologized and accepted full responsibility for issuing the invitation and for the recognition in Parliament. This was the right thing to do.”
Zelensky has not yet commented on the revelation.
Dan Panneton, a director with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, told CBC News: “The fact that this individual, and by proxy the organization he was a member of, was given a standing ovation in the House of Commons is deeply troubling.
“I think association with this unit makes you a Nazi collaborator. To be part of this unit, you swore allegiance to Hitler and you were involved with the massacre of civilians. So it doesn’t matter if you try and claim that you were defending against communism, you were still involved with the Nazi war machine. That makes you complicit.”
Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, told CTV it was “beyond outrageous that Parliament honoured a former member of a Nazi unit”. He said that 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”.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said it was deeply troubled by the incident. In a statement published on Sunday on X, formerly known as Twitter, it said: “Canada’s Jewish community stands firmly with Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression. But we can’t stay silent when crimes committed by Ukrainians during the Holocaust are whitewashed.”
Canada’s Conservative leader Pierre Poilievr blamed Trudeau for the incident. In a written statement he said: “No parliamentarians (other than Justin Trudeau) had the opportunity to vet this individual’s past before he was introduced and honoured on the floor of the House of Commons.
“Without warning or context, it was impossible for any parliamentarian in the room (other than Mr. Trudeau) to know of this dark past.”
In response, the Prime Minister’s Office repeated Rota’s assertion that he alone invited Hunka.