Poland says it’s preparing to seek the extradition of a 98-year-old Ukrainian Nazi after he received a standing ovation in the Canadian House of Commons last week following a speech by visiting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Yaroslav Hunka was invited by the speaker of the House, who has since resigned his post, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized for the episode on Wednesday. Hunka fought during World War II with a Nazi unit composed of Ukrainian volunteers who were involved in numerous atrocities, including massacres of Jewish civilians. But Hunka is not an outlier, according to Ukrainian American journalist Lev Golinkin, who says Canada took in many Ukrainian Nazi collaborators after the war. That includes the grandfather of Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who spent years painting him as a victim rather than the Nazi propagandist he was. “Of course Hunka didn’t think anything would happen, because you had the deputy prime minister who was caught whitewashing a Nazi collaborator, and nothing happened,” says Golinkin.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We turn now to the revelation that the Ukrainian World War II veteran honored last week in the Canadian House of Commons was actually a Nazi, setting off a diplomatic crisis. Last Friday, Canada’s House of Commons gave a standing ovation to a Canadian Ukrainian veteran who fought in the Nazi SS unit during World War II. Ninety-eight-year-old Yaroslav Hunka was honored during a visit by the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who also applauded him.
SPEAKER ANTHONY ROTA: Here in the chamber today, Ukrainian Canadians — Ukrainian Canadian war veteran from the Second World War who fought the Ukrainian independence against the Russians and continues to support the troops today, even at his age of 98.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the speaker of the House of Commons, Anthony Rota, who invited Yaroslav Hunka. Rota resigned from his post Tuesday.
SPEAKER ANTHONY ROTA: This House is above any of us. Therefore, I must step down as your speaker. I reiterate my profound regret for my error in recognizing an individual in the House during the joint address to Parliament of President Zelensky. That public recognition has caused pain to individuals and communities, including the Jewish community in Canada and around the world, in addition to survivors of Nazi atrocities in Poland, among other nations. I accept full responsibility for my actions.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also formally apologized.
PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: I also want to reiterate how deeply sorry Canada is for the situation this put President Zelensky and the Ukrainian delegation in. It is extremely troubling to think that this egregious error is being politicized by Russia and its supporters to provide false propaganda about what Ukraine is fighting for. Friday’s joint session was about what Canada stands for, about our steadfast support of Ukraine’s fight against Putin’s brutality, lies and violence. It was a moment to celebrate and acknowledge the sacrifices of Ukrainians as they fight for their democracy, their freedom, their language and culture, and for peace. This is the side Canada was on in World War II, and this is the side we are on today.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Canada’s Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre described the event honoring the former Nazi soldier as the “biggest single diplomatic embarrassment” in Canada’s history.
This week, Poland’s education minister issued a statement calling for Hunka’s extradition to Poland to be tried.
For more, we’re joined by Lev Golinkin. He is the Ukrainian American journalist whose reporting for the Forward first confirmed Yaroslav Hunka was a World War II veteran who fought in a Nazi SS unit. Lev has reported extensively on the Ukraine crisis, Russia and the far right.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Lev. So, explain exactly who this guy Hunka was. How was it that he’s standing there, 98 years old, in the gallery and pointed out by the House of Commons speaker, and everyone applauded? You have Trudeau apologizing. I don’t think Zelensky has said anything about this yet.
LEV GOLINKIN: He has not, as far as I know. Zelensky has condemned this unit, SS Galichina, in 2021, when there was a march in its honor in Kyiv. So he condemned it in 2021. He’s been silent since, as far as this incident.
I’ll tell you this, Amy: As soon as I saw the news that he was described as a fighter for Ukraine’s independence against Russia, I knew that he was a Nazi collaborator. The only question, the first question that just went through my mind, was: Which unit was he in? Because that’s a euphemism that they use to say, you know, “We didn’t fight for Germany; we fought against Russia.” It’s a cheap rhetorical trick, because when they fought against Russia, they were fighting alongside and under command of Nazi Germany.
And honestly, I have been shocked, because I have reported on Canada’s dark history in taking in Nazi collaborators, including in The Nation about Canada’s Nazi monuments, which they have monuments to this exact division. This is a country that on its soil has monuments celebrating the Waffen-SS, as does the United States. So, in many ways, Yaroslav Hunka belonged up in the Parliament, because he was there as part of a country that took in at least 2,000 SS Galichina vets, 2,000 of these Waffen-SS soldiers from a division that committed horrific war crimes.
And one of the interesting things is, because they were taken in partly because they were enemies of the USSR, so it was Cold War politics, but — and this is something that gets often lost — an ancillary benefit for why Canada took them in was the using them as strike breakers to break the powers of the unions. The unions were growing strong after World War II, and these men were organized and ready to act as strike breakers. So, this is a dark part of Canada’s domestic policy and foreign policy together.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can explain further, when it comes to World War II, how these Nazi units were formed, what their relationship was with Germany?
LEV GOLINKIN: Yes, it’s very important to know that these people are described as, you know, they’re Ukrainian heroes. The overwhelming majority of Ukraine fought against the Third Reich. Two-and-a-half million Ukrainians perished; they gave their lives fighting against the Third Reich. The only ones who really say that, you know, Ukraine — that all of Ukraine collaborated with the Nazis, that’s what Vladimir Putin says. That’s what Moscow propaganda says. The reality is that a small region in western Ukraine welcomed the Nazis. And this is the same region where they started slaughtering Jews as soon as the Nazis invaded. In many cases, the SS didn’t even have to kill the Jews, because the Ukrainian nationalist death squads have already done it.
So, this small percentage rose up. They joined the Nazis. And in 1943, when Germany needed even more soldiers because Germany was losing the war, they created this Waffen-SS division, which was mostly composed of volunteers. And people like Hunka said that they volunteered for this division. They committed war crimes. At the end of the war, they were taken in, and they were released. And many of them, thousands, were taken into the U.K., into the U.S., into Canada.
And the biggest thing that people should understand is that when we think of Nazis being taken into the New World, we think of Argentina and Nazis hiding there and keeping a low profile. These Nazis were openly proud of what they did in Canada. They formed organizations. They formed veterans’ associations. I think, you know, people have been asking me, like, “What was he thinking? Why was he even putting himself out there?” And the answer is, because Canada spent so long turning a blind eye to these people and allowing them to be proud of who they are, the notion that anything would happen, the notion that people would complain, I don’t think it crossed this man’s mind. Because I and everybody else, the few people who reported about this, we were just called Russian propagandists. And even though these were literal Nazis who were historically proved to have committed war crimes, people didn’t want to hear it, because they were — it’s Holocaust revisionism. They were portrayed as heroes. These suddenly — these are war criminals who successfully painted themselves as heroes. So I was stunned that all of a sudden Canada decided to face its past.
AMY GOODMAN: So, why do you think the Ukrainian president, Zelensky, has not said anything, given he’s condemned that unit in the past? I mean, there he was, along with, obviously, Justin Trudeau, the House of Commons speaker, who has since resigned, applauding this man. And how was he brought to the House speaker’s attention — I think he lived in his area — to be brought to the House of Commons, to be celebrated as Zelensky met with the House of Commons?
LEV GOLINKIN: Well, this is a man who was active in the community. Especially I think there’s evidence coming out that he definitely donated money, Hunka did, and his family did. He donated money to the University of Alberta, for example, for a scholarship, that the university just decided — just announced they were giving away. So, this is a person who was active in the community, so he wasn’t just some random person plucked at random, so as far as that.
As far as Zelensky, I mean, he’s in the middle of fighting a war. That’s obviously something that’s in his mind. He was just away on a state visit. He came back. But I think the important thing is, so far, I don’t think anybody has asked him in the media. And I think the important question is not “Why hasn’t he said anything?” but “Why wasn’t he asked his response when Trudeau apologized, when the Canadian Parliament speaker apologized?”
And I also just want to say, just to understand how entrenched this is in Canada, Canada’s deputy prime minister, Chrystia Freeland, has spent years presenting her grandfather, who was a Nazi collaborator, as a war victim. OK? So, the Canadian Parliament speaker spent 30 seconds turning a perpetrator into a hero. Chrystia Freeland has done it for decades. And even though it was admitted —
AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly who her maternal grandfather is.
LEV GOLINKIN: Her grandfather worked as a propagandist that took over a Polish newspaper. The newspaper used to be owned by a Jew, who was sent and then murdered in the death camps along with his family. And her grandfather proceeded then to turn out antisemitic propaganda inflaming anti-Jewish hatred as the Holocaust was rolling along.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Michael Chomiak.
LEV GOLINKIN: Yes. And, of course, she’s not responsible for the sins of her grandfather, and nobody is saying that. The problem is that she was actively presenting him as a victim, that she was presenting this narrative of these people were war victims, and these people should be idolized. And when she was caught, she basically just blamed Russian propaganda and walked away. And again, it’s not the fact that her — she’s not responsible for her grandfather. She is responsible for twisting history and for revisionism and for presenting a perpetrator as a victim. And that just shows you that, you know, of course Hunka didn’t think anything would happen, because you have the deputy prime minister who was caught whitewashing a Nazi collaborator, and nothing happened. So, I’m glad —
AMY GOODMAN: So, Lev, if you can now —
LEV GOLINKIN: — that Canada is looking at it.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about —
LEV GOLINKIN: Go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: — Poland and the Education Ministry saying that they want Hunka extradited to be tried? I mean, the man is 98 years old.
LEV GOLINKIN: There is a mix of politics and real pain happening there. The education minister is part of a far-right section of Poland, OK? So it’s hard to say that he’s simply doing it because of his care for this. It’s a political issue. And, unfortunately, this has led to a lot of tension between Poland and Ukraine, because Poland is one of Ukraine’s greatest allies, but because these units, like SS Galichina — they had committed horrible crimes against Polish civilians. This unit, it wasn’t good at actually fighting. It lost when it fought actual troops. The only thing it was pretty good at was suppressing resistance and committing war crimes against unarmed civilians. So, Poland very much feels this pain when Ukraine, which is its ally, insists on honoring butchers of Poles. But Russia is also using it, and pro-Russian factions in the Polish society are using it, to drive a wedge between Poland and Ukraine. So, he’s doing it because there’s genuine pain there, because SS Galichina did commit war crimes, but there’s also a political aspect to it that it’s not 100% simply just wanting to get justice. There’s a lot of, unfortunately, dirty politics involved in it on both sides.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lev Golinkin, we want to thank you for being with us, Ukrainian American journalist, reported extensively on the Ukraine crisis, Russia and the far right. We’ll link your latest piece in the Forward; it’s headlined “Canada’s House Speaker resigns over celebration of 98-year-old who fought in Nazi unit.” Lev Golinkin’s memoir is titled A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir of Soviet Ukraine.
Next up, we speak to the deputy foreign minister of Cuba about the recent attack on the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., and more. Stay with us.