Jews across Canada were preparing for the holiest day on the religious calendar on Sunday, as word was spreading about a major snafu in Ottawa two days earlier.
Ahead of a 24-hour fast to atone for sins committed in the previous year and ask to be inscribed into the Book of Life for the year ahead, the solemn contemplation was overshadowed by a face-palm-worthy Canadian debacle.
It concerns the 98-year-old Ukrainian-Canadian who received a hero’s reception in the House of Commons on Friday from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and everyone else who leapt to their feet.
Unbeknownst to them, they were applauding a guy who fought for the Nazis.
Yaroslav Hunka was honoured in the House for having been a member of the First Ukrainian Division during the Second World War. Turns out, the unit was also called the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS.
The Waffen-SS, a quick Google search will tell you, was the military branch of the SS. Its members carried out mass executions, the details of which will stain your soul; it also supplied the notoriously sadistic guards for concentration camps.
“There should be no confusion that this unit was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable,” said the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in a statement on Sunday. The organization said it was appalled by the standing ovation.
Not exactly the war hero as advertised, Mr. Hunka had volunteered for the unit, reported The Forward, citing a blog entry he wrote. In other blog posts, the Jewish publication reported, Mr. Hunka described 1941 to 1943 as the happiest years of his life.
As this information was coming to light on Sunday, the House Speaker, Anthony Rota, issued a statement, saying the decision to bring in Mr. Hunka, who lives in his North Bay, Ont. riding, was Mr. Rota’s alone. The Ukrainian delegation and Canadian parliamentarians had not been informed.
This apology came out as flowery statements about Yom Kippur flowed from official accounts for the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr. Trudeau himself and others who had given this former (one hopes) Nazi a standing ovation.
As the sun was setting and Kol Nidre – the solemn prayer that begins Yom Kippur – was being chanted by cantors from St. John’s to Victoria, the trending topics on X (formerly Twitter) included “The Nazi” and “Waffen SS.”
This was obviously an error – a mistake committed without malice. But what an embarrassment. And one with international implications.
Everyone who stood and clapped in the House, maybe with tears in their eyes, will forever be shadowed with this fact: you gave a standing ovation to a guy who was in the Nazi SS, even though the applauders obviously did it in good faith, trusting that the elderly man had been vetted and really was a Ukrainian war hero.
Worse, we all know this will be, and is already being, weaponized, by Russia. But also for partisan purposes here at home. Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Trudeau are being chastised for applauding an actual Nazi (they did, but didn’t realize it).
As I prepared our pre-fast dinner – spaghetti and meatballs (just like in the shtetl) – I felt pretty disheartened. Not just that I too had tearily applauded this guy, watching at home, trusting in the system that had honoured him. But I felt sick at the way this debacle was already being twisted and spun by bad actors for political gain. What will India do with this, given the current situation?
On a more personal level, consider the utter humiliation to this guy’s family. I don’t give a fig for Mr. Hunka himself. (If you think that makes me cruel and uncaring, I ask you to investigate how members of the Waffen SS treated 98-year-old Jewish men. And women.) But family and friends who must have felt such pride at that moment, who maybe didn’t know about Mr. Hunka’s past – they don’t deserve this.
It would have been so easy to avoid this. A little homework could have prevented this utter disgrace.
If there’s any lesson to come out of this sad event, perhaps it’s that learning a bit of history can protect us – and from things much more significant than personal embarrassment or political vulnerability. In Ontario, Holocaust education has become mandatory for grade six students. I think there are some older folks who could use a history lesson as well.