Canadian lawmakers seemed to pay a touching and timely tribute 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 actually part of a notorious Nazi faction, leading to outrage at the applause given to him in the presence of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Yaroslav Hanka wiped away tears as he received a rousing endorsement 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 raised a fist during the applause.
But Rota apologized on Sunday, saying he “later learned more information” about Hanka’s past.
The Ukrainian nonagenarian fought against 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 were well documented,” according to Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The Canadian Human Rights Group promotes Holocaust awareness and fights anti-Semitism.
In a statement on Sunday, the Center said it was “deeply saddened” by the recognition of Hanka in Parliament and “further enraged” by the standing ovation he received.
“It is shocking that a veteran who served in a Nazi military unit was invited to Parliament and given a standing ovation in Parliament,” it said. Hanka’s division, also known as the First Ukrainian Division, was “responsible for mass murders of innocent civilians with unimaginable brutality and malice.”
Another Canada-based advocacy group, the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said It was “deeply concerned and disturbed.” Michael Mostyn, CEO of the Jewish human rights organization B’nai B’rith Canada; Called Invitation and Greeting “Beyond the miracle.”
Rota, the Commons speaker, said he was solely responsible for inviting Hanka, who lives in the area he represents, implying that neither Zelensky nor Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knew.
“I want to especially apologize to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “I take full responsibility for my actions.”
Zelensky, who is Jewish, has said that members of his family were killed during the Holocaust. NBC News has reached out to his office for comment.
Trudeau’s office said in a statement that Rota apologized and accepted full responsibility.
“This is the right thing to do,” the statement said. “Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the Ukrainian delegation was given any advance notice of the invitation or authorization.”
Members of Parliament from all parties, not just Trudeau’s Liberals, applauded Hanka. A spokesman for the Conservative Party said the party was unaware of his history at the time, The Associated Press reported.
Hanka could not immediately be reached for comment, the AP reported.
Russia seizes recognition of ‘insurgency’
The issue of Nazis and far-right ideology is particularly pressing for Ukraine.
One of the worst justifications Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered for invading his former Soviet neighbor is that he wants to “denazify” Ukraine, which he says is run by Western-enforced neo-Nazis.
There is little evidence for this claim. But Russian authorities quickly seized Hanka’s armband as evidence Ukraine’s extreme right wing and its supporters.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, called the scene “outrageous” and accused the Kantians of “such a careless approach to memory” during his daily press briefing on Monday.
“A new generation has grown up in Canada ignorant of fascism and Nazi crimes, and we can see Nazism resurrected here and there, like in Ukraine,” he said.
Russia’s ambassador to Canada, Oleg Stepanov, said it was no accident that he invited former Nazis to parliament, calling the Canadian government “essentially the embodiment 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 many countries, including Russia, Ukraine has some far-right elements. The Azov Battalion, in particular, attached to the National Guard of Ukraine, has a history of far-right and white supremacist identities and beliefs.
Support also continues for prominent World War II nationalist figures such as Stephen Bandera, who despite being a Nazi collaborator is revered by many as a freedom fighter against the Soviets.
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 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 greeted them as liberators from the Soviet yoke, according to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. “Many Ukrainians and some prisoners of war willingly joined German auxiliary units,” it said.
This cooperation extended to the “Massacre of Bullets”: according to the United States Holocaust, 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were shot near their homes by the Germans, along with Ukrainians and Russians, instead of being deported to camps. Memorial Museum.