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How was veteran Yaroslav Hunka's military unit linked to the Nazis?

During the height of the Second World War, Nazi Germany formed a division of Ukrainian volunteers to fight against the Soviet Union.

Known as the First Ukrainian Division – and also referred to as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division and the SS 14th Waffen Division – the military formation fought in Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia and the former Yugoslavia.

"Members of this division were involved in mass murder of Jews, Poles and Ukrainians during (the Second World War), and many of them did this before they joined this division," University of Ottawa political science professor Ivan Katchanovski told "They're considered to be Nazi collaborators, and they are not regarded even as heroes in Ukraine by the Ukrainian government."

Nearly 80 years after being disbanded in 1945, the Nazi-led division is fuelling new outrage after 98-year-old former member Yaroslav Hunka was honoured with a two standing ovations in Canada's House of Commons on Friday during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit to Ottawa.

Now a Canadian citizen and North Bay, Ont. resident, Hunka was invited by local MP and former House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota, who resigned from his prestigious post on Tuesday amid the controversy.

The military division was initially formed by the Nazis in 1943 with volunteers from Western Ukraine's Galicia region, with Ukrainian nationalists ostensibly joining to help liberate their country from Soviet occupation.

Katchanovski, who researches conflicts in Ukraine, says evidence links the Nazi-led "puppet unit" to approximately a thousand civilian deaths in Poland and Ukraine.

"They massacred entire villages of Polish residents in this region… including women and children because they were accused of being associated with Soviet partisans," Katchanovski said. "This was just mass murder without any real justification."

While Hunka was part of the unit, it was not immediately known what role he played in its operations, and some say allegations of war crimes against the division cannot be confirmed. Katchanovski has shared patriotic blog posts apparently written by Hunka in Ukrainian, which describe growing up in the country amid Soviet and German occupation, and enlisting in the SS Galicia Division in 1943.

The division was under the direction of Nazi Germany's infamous SS paramilitary group, which was declared a criminal organization by the post-war International Military Tribunal in Nuremburg.

"In addition to this, the SS Galicia Division was involved in other cases of violence," Katchanovski added. "They took part in the suppression of the anti-Nazi uprising in Slovakia, and they also took part in the brutal and violent suppression of the anti-Nazi partisan movement in Yugoslavia."

It was renamed the First Ukrainian Division of the Ukrainian National Army in March 1945 before surrendering to British forces two months later, in May 1945.

More than 8,000 fighters moved to the U.K. in 1947. Because they fought against communist Russia, about 600 were permitted to relocate to Canada during the Cold War, following a 1950 federal cabinet decision.

"These Ukrainians should be subject to special security screening, but should not be rejected on the grounds of their service in the German army," the Canadian government decided at the time.

In 1985 the issue resurfaced, leading then-prime minister Brian Mulroney to order an investigation to determine whether Canada had become a haven for Nazi war criminals.

"Charges of war crimes against members of the Galicia Division have never been substantiated," the final 1986 report from the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals stated. "Further, in the absence of evidence of participation in or knowledge of specific war crimes, mere membership in the Galicia Division is insufficient to justify prosecution."

Many Jewish groups have disagreed with that assessment.

B'nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said the division's volunteers included "ultra-nationalist ideologues" who "dreamed of an ethnically homogenous Ukrainian state and endorsed the idea of ethnic cleansing."

According to the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, the Ukrainian division "was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable."

"Those units were involved in real acts of atrocities against Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime," former MP and Wiesenthal Center president and CEO Michael Levitt told CTV News. "The Nazi units, like the one he was involved with, did not give the victims of the Holocaust, the millions of them, Jews and others, an opportunity to live their lives, have children and grandchildren and live to be 98 years old."

Monuments in Canada that honour the division have been targeted with vandalism, including a 2020 incident in Oakville, Ont., and a 2021 case in Edmonton where a statue was spray-painted with the words "actual Nazi."

The episode in Canadian parliament has also played into Russian state propaganda, which egregiously paints its so-called "special military operation" in Ukraine as a mission to "de-Nazify" the country. Ukraine President Zelenskyy is Jewish and lost family in the Holocaust.

Witold Dzielski, Poland's ambassador to Canada, says the military division contributed to the deaths of six million Poles during the war, half of whom were Jewish. Poland's education minister has also called for Hunka's extradition.

"This is a person who participated in an organization that was targeting Poles, was committing mass murders of Poles, not only the military personnel but also civilians," Dzielski told CTV News Channel on Monday. "For me, such people should not be present in public life and probably should be prosecuted."

In another case, former Nazi SS death squad member Helmut Oberlander was able to get Canadian citizenship and live quietly for years until officials caught up with him in the 1990s. Following a decades-long deportation battle, Oberlander died in Canada in 2021 at age 97.

"(It's) absolutely critical that we reflect back on Canada's absolutely awful, awful record of holding Nazis accountable for their crimes," Levitt from the Wiesenthal Center said. " We have failed at that we were a safehaven for so many that came in."

With files from The Canadian Press and Writers Tom Yun and Alexandra Mae Jones Top Stories


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