It seemed like a touching and timely tribute by Canadian lawmakers to a 98-year-old war “hero” who fought for Ukraine’s independence during World War II. But it soon emerged that the man was in fact part of a notorious Nazi unit, leading to fury at the standing ovation he was given in the presence of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Yaroslav Hunka wiped away tears on receiving the rousing recognition from the Canadian House of Commons on Friday. He was singled out by speaker Anthony Rota, who called him a “hero” following a speech by the visiting Ukrainian leader, who in turn raised a fist during the applause.
But Rota apologized Sunday after he said he “subsequently became aware of more information” about Hunka’s past.
The Ukrainian nonagenarian did fight the Soviet Union, but as part of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, “a Nazi military unit whose crimes against humanity during the Holocaust are well-documented,” according to the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Canadian human rights group promoting awareness about the Holocaust and fighting antisemitism.
The Center said in a statement Sunday it was “deeply disturbed” by Hunka’s recognition in Parliament and “further outraged” that he received a standing ovation.
“The fact that a veteran who served in a Nazi military unit was invited to and given a standing ovation in Parliament is shocking,” it said. Hunka’s unit, also known as the First Ukrainian Division, was “responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable.”
Another Canada-based advocacy group, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said it was “deeply troubled and disturbed.” Michael Mostyn, CEO of Jewish human rights organization B’nai Brith Canada, called the invitation and ovation “beyond outrageous.”
Rota, the Commons speaker, said that he alone was responsible for inviting Hunka, who lives in the area he represents, implying that neither Zelenskyy nor Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knew about it.
“I particularly want to extend my apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world,” the speaker said in a statement. “I accept full responsibility for my actions.”
Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, has said members of his family were killed during the Holocaust. NBC News has contacted his office for comment.
Trudeau’s office said in a statement that Rota had apologized and accepted full responsibility.
“This was the right thing to do,” the statement said. “No advance notice was provided to the Prime Minister’s Office, nor the Ukrainian delegation, about the invitation or the recognition.”
Members of Parliament from all parties, not just Trudeau’s Liberal Party, rose to applaud Hunka. A spokesperson for the Conservative party said the party was not aware of his history at the time, The Associated Press reported.
Hunka could not be immediately reached for comment, the AP said.
Russia seizes on ‘revolting’ recognition
The issue of Nazis and far-right ideology is an especially touchy one for Ukraine.
One of the nebulous justifications given by Russian President Vladimir Putin for invading his former Soviet neighbor is that he wants to “denazify” Ukraine, which he says is being run by neo-Nazis enabled by the West.
There is little evidence for this claim. But Russian officials were quick to seize on Hunka’s ovation as proof of the far-right leanings of Ukraine and its backers.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, called the spectacle “revolting” and accused the Candians of having “such an uncareful attitude to memory,” during his daily briefing to journalists Monday.
“A whole new generation has grown up in Canada unaware of fascism and Nazi crimes,” he said, “and we can see Nazism resurrect here and there, like for example in Ukraine.”
Russia’s ambassador to Canada, Oleg Stepanov, said that inviting the former Nazi into parliament was no accident, calling the Canadian government “essentially the personification of neoliberal fascism,” according to Russian news agency RIA.
And Russia’s permanent representative in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, called it a “shameful day for Canada,” the news agency reported.
Like in many other countries, including Russia, Ukraine does have some far-right elements. Notably the Azov Battalion, which has been incorporated into the Ukraine National Guard, has a history of far-right and white supremacist insignia and beliefs.
Support for prominent World War II-era nationalist figures like Stepan Bandera also persists, with many revering him as a freedom fighter against the Soviets despite the fact he was also a Nazi collaborator.
Just before World War II, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and millions of Ukrainians fought for the Red Army against Nazi Germany. At this time, the country also had one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe — a population long subject to persecution and pogroms.
When the country was invaded by German forces in 1941, many Ukrainian nationalists welcomed them as liberators from the Soviet yolk, according to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. “Many Ukrainians and some of the prisoners of war willingly joined German auxiliary units,” it said.
This collaboration also extended to the “Holocaust of bullets”: the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews who were shot to death near their homes — rather than deported to camps — by Germans alongside willing Ukrainians and Russians, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Alexander Smith is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital based in London.
The Associated Press