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Yaroslav Hunka, right, waits for the arrival of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Sept. 22.Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

Since he was celebrated in Parliament, kicking off a political firestorm in Ottawa and outrage around the world, the public has heard nothing from Yaroslav Hunka, the 98-year-old who served in a Nazi unit during the Second World War.

But a dozen years ago, Mr. Hunka wrote an essay about his time in the Waffen-SS Galicia Division for an American online magazine focused on Ukrainian war veterans – a piece that provides some insight into what he says were his reasons for enlisting.

The sight of a former serviceman for a Nazi-commanded unit, consisting mostly of thousands of ethnic Ukrainians, being applauded in the House of Commons has created all sorts of rancour: It has led to the resignation of Speaker Anthony Rota, the MP who invited Mr. Hunka to Parliament in the first place; and the reigniting of old debates among historians about the culpability of the division in Nazi atrocities.

It’s also renewed focus on the fact that several hundred or more former members of this unit were welcomed into Canada with the government’s blessing.

In his essay, written in Ukrainian and translated into English, Mr. Hunka describes how people in his western Ukrainian city initially welcomed the invading Germans, after years of repressive Polish occupation, followed by 18 months of brutal rule by the Soviets.

He talks about how under Stalin, he saw children and their families shipped away to Siberia, and later found out his aunt and uncle had also been taken. When the Galicia Division was created, many young Ukrainians jumped at the chance to fight back, he said.

“None of us asked what our reward would be, what our provision would be, or even what our tomorrow would be. We felt our duty to our native land, and left,” he wrote. Neither Mr. Hunka nor his family could be reached for comment.

The former soldier doesn’t detail what he actually did during the war, but says that many of his fellow recruits died a “heroic death” at the behest of Ukraine’s wartime leaders. Mr. Hunka conceded that there were some “bad apples” in his division, but says he volunteered at 18 out of a sense duty to protect his homeland from the Soviets.

Mr. Hunka, believed to be one of the last Galicia Division veterans still living in Canada, had less than favourable things to say about the new German occupiers, too. He called them “the new enemy,” who brought a wave of arrests to his city. He described how the Nazis dismantled the provisional Ukrainian government in Lviv and imprisoned Ukrainian leaders in concentration camps.

The uproar in Ottawa has heaped renewed attention on the Galicia Division, which was created in 1943 after the German defeat at Stalingrad, as Hitler was growing desperate to turn the tide against the Soviets. After the war, some Ukrainian soldiers linked to the division were accused of war crimes for the killing of civilians in Poland.

In the 1950s, a former Royal Canadian Air Force Flight Lieutenant named Bohdan Panchuk worked to persuade the federal government to accept large numbers of soldiers from the unit, and it is believed that several hundred – some reports have said as many as 2,000 – immigrated to the country.

By the 1980s, media reports about Nazis hiding in Canada were rampant, and groups such as the Canadian Jewish Congress were calling for government intervention. In 1986, the federal Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals was launched in response, and recommended legislation that allowed for the prosecution of foreign war crimes in Canadian courts and the deportation of those found guilty.

But while the commission acknowledged that it was unable to investigate records kept in the Soviet Union, it says it found no evidence that any of the Ukrainian veterans participated in war crimes.

One thing is certain. There is much evidence in the historical record that some of the officers who oversaw the Galicia Division had brutal backgrounds. Jochen Böhler, director of the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies, said the division’s involvement in war crimes is still disputed, and is currently “under prosecutorial investigation in Poland.” But there’s no room for nuance, he said.

“In the opinion of the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies, the honouring of a member of the [Galicia Division] for his membership in this very organization is to be condemned in the strongest terms, because in our eyes it implicitly trivializes the Holocaust,” he said. Mr. Rota, the former Speaker, has said that he was not aware of Mr. Hunka’s background when he invited him to Parliament.

A military historian who testified at the 1986 inquiry, however, says conflating those Ukrainian volunteers with Nazis is a mistake that ignores the geopolitical reality of Eastern Europe during the war.

The Germans considered the Ukrainians as a lesser race to be used only as “cannon fodder” against the advancing Soviets, said Lubomyr Luciuk of the Royal Military College of Canada. Mr. Hunka’s generation thought supporting a Ukrainian army division, even one led by Germans, was a step toward independence after years of foreign occupation, he said.

“They weren’t motivated by antisemitic ideology, they weren’t motivated by support for the Third Reich. No Ukrainian could be a ‘Nazi’ because you had to be an Aryan. They were Slavs,” Prof. Luciuk said. “They did this because they saw it as a way to secure their independence.”

Prof. Luciuk says a disinformation campaign in the 1970s by Soviet agents in the West, called Operation Payback, portrayed the Ukrainian veterans as Nazi sympathizers, in order to sow division between the Jewish and Ukrainian diasporas striving for independence for Ukraine.

In Canada, meanwhile, members of the Ukrainian community have worked to rehabilitate the reputation of members of the Galicia Division as war heroes, and have celebrated their exploits, erecting monuments to them in Edmonton and Oakville, Ont.

Mr. Hunka’s appearance in Parliament has generated plenty of international outrage – and anger across the country. On Thursday, the University of Alberta announced it was giving back a $30,000 endowment that Mr. Hunka’s family had made in his name to the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.

To immigrate to Canada, members of the Galicia Division would have been screened twice – first in Italy as prisoners of war, and again after being transferred to a British labour camp, Prof. Luciuk said. Professor Per Anders Rudling, of Sweden’s Lund University, however, says the British only examined the backgrounds of a few hundred of the 8,272 prisoners connected to the division.

According to the obituary of Mr. Hunka’s English-born wife, he was married in 1951 and immigrated to Toronto three years later, before settling in North Bay, Ont. The couple had two sons, and four grandchildren.

The Galicia Division still sparks polarizing reactions, with one academic describing it as a “collaborationist unit” within the SS run by officers trained in Nazi ideology. It was set up by Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and a key figure in the Nazi regime, in the spring of 1943 as the German war machine faltered. The division was led by Nazi SS commander Fritz Freitag, who had earlier fought alongside SS deaths squads responsible for killing Jews and resisters in German-occupied territories.

Recruits swore a solemn oath to give “absolute obedience to the commander in chief of the German armed forces, Adolf Hitler.” Photographs of members of the division taking the oath show them in their SS uniforms giving Nazi salutes.

In a speech to the Galicia Division’s officers in May, 1944, Mr. Himmler spoke of the need for “obedience” that starts “the moment you receive an order to do something you find unpleasant.” He also boasted how the “loss” of Jews had been beneficial to Galicia, the term used for the western region of Ukraine.

“Your homeland has become even more beautiful – and I can safely say this – since it lost through our intervention, those inhabitants who often sullied the name of Galicia, namely the Jews,” he said.

The division’s newspaper was laced with antisemitic material, according to John-Paul Himka, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta. It talked about the battle against “Judeo-communist intruders,” and was infused with National Socialist propaganda including a caricature of a Jew with a yellow star cowed by an SS soldier with a sword.

In its April, 1945, edition, days before Ukrainian soldiers surrendered to the British and Americans, the newspaper carried an article about “Jewish punitive expeditions,” claiming Jews were plundering Ukraine.

While there’s no evidence that Mr. Hunka shared any of those views, Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the unit’s history has been reconstructed to erase or minimize links to the Nazis. He said it was “a lie” to claim that all their members had been “freedom fighters” with no involvement in war crimes, atrocities or hunting Jews.

Ukrainian soldiers associated with the Galicia Division have been implicated in a massacre in the Polish village of Huta Pieniacka, which was hiding Jews and was co-operating with pro-Soviet partisans. Eyewitnesses alleged that civilians were rounded up in a church and shot, while women and children were locked in a barn that was set ablaze.

With a report from Stephanie Chambers

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized on behalf of Parliament Wednesday after a member of a Nazi unit was honoured during a visit from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. House Speaker Anthony Rota took full responsibility for inviting Yaroslav Hunka, and later resigned. Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre challenged Trudeau on what background checks were made on people present for Zelensky’s speech.

The Globe and Mail

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