Volodymyr Kubijovych, circled, gives a Nazi salute at an SS Galichina recruitment ceremony in 1943. An endowment at the University of Alberta honors Kubijovych. (Photo/Forward-Courtesy TSDKFFA via U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Volodymyr Kubijovych, circled, gives a Nazi salute at an SS Galichina recruitment ceremony in 1943. An endowment at the University of Alberta honors Kubijovych. (Photo/Forward-Courtesy TSDKFFA via U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Canadian officials are ashamed to have saluted a Ukrainian who fought for Hitler — but it didn’t come from nowhere

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Canadian officials have spent the past week apologizing for accidentally honoring a 98-year-old man who fought in a Nazi division during World War II as a Ukrainian nationalist hero. 

While most Ukrainians battled against Germany during the war, it’s well known that the western region of the country collaborated with the Third Reich — and that thousands of those involved were allowed to resettle in Canada. 

Yet politicians and institutions are professing shock that Yaroslav Hunka — an old man who got a standing ovation from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Volodomyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine on Sept. 22 — was part of a unit armed and trained by Nazis.

That unit, the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, also known as SS Galichina or SS Galizien, was created in 1943, commanded by SS officers, and is believed responsible for war crimes including the 1944 Huta Pieniacka massacre, where hundreds of Polish villagers were burned alive.

In the week since the Forward first reported on Hunka’s problematic past, a university announced plans to return an endowment funded in Hunka’s honor and the parliamentary leader who invited him resigned, under pressure, from his post as speaker. Yet that politician has connections to institutions tied to Hunka’s family, and the University of Alberta has publicized past support from other SS Galichina veterans. In a 2011 news release, the school described another donor as having “joined the Galicia Division, later the 1st Ukrainian Division of the Ukrainian National Army.”

Here’s some of what we’ve learned about Hunka and his family, how he came to be honored in Parliament, the history of SS Galichina and its veterans, and the spiraling fallout.

Fighting for the Nazis — and against Russia

Those who defend Ukraine’s alliance with Nazis during World War II say men like Hunka were Ukrainian nationalists who joined German forces to defeat a common enemy: the Soviet Union. 

“There are many Ukrainians who say, yes, this was kind of a deal with a devil — the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said Jars Balan, director of the University of Alberta’s Kule Ukrainian Canadian Studies Centre. “No different than what happened with the Western allies entering into an alliance with Stalin to fight the Germans — when the Western countries knew Stalin was a mass murderer and a dictator.” (The Kule Centre where Balan works is part of the university’s Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies. Hours after Balan spoke to the Forward, the university announced it would return an endowment honoring Hunka.)

Indeed, Stalin’s reign of terror included killing millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s in a state-engineered famine that the U.S. Senate and others deemed genocide.

When Anthony Rota, speaker of Canada’s House of Commons, introduced Hunka during Zelenskyy’s Sept. 22 visit, he called him a “veteran from the Second World War who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians and continues to support the troops today.”

And Hunka made the argument himself after Russia invaded his homeland last year. “In the last war, I joined the Ukrainian underground to fight Russia, so I was fighting the same people they’re fighting now,” he told a reporter covering a peace vigil in North Bay, Ontario, in March 2022

“Nothing has changed there. The same enemy. First Stalin was there and now this idiot,” he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

The best years of his life

In a post for the SS Galichina veterans’ blog Combatant News, Hunka wrote that 1941 to 1943 — after Germany invaded Ukraine and before Hunka enlisted — were the happiest years of his life. He also recalled eagerly awaiting “the legendary German knights” to come and attack “the hated Poles,” using a slur for Polish people, in 1939.

Captioned photos from the blog show Hunka during SS artillery training in Munich in December 1943 and in Poland around the time of a visit by Nazi mastermind Heinrich Himmler. “I know that if I ordered you to liquidate the Poles … I would be giving you permission to do what you are eager to do anyway,” Himmler said during that visit, according to several historical accounts.

Now, the Polish minister of education is looking into whether Hunka can be extradited and prosecuted for what happened during the war.

On the veterans’ blog, Hunka says he was held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy after the war; he was later allowed to resettle in England, where he met his wife, Margaret Edgerton, who was British. According to Margaret’s 2018 obituary, they moved to Canada in 1954 and had two sons, Martin and Peter, and four grandchildren. 

Hunka made his living in the aircraft industry, working his way up to inspector at DeHavilland Aircraft in Toronto. After retirement, he visited Ukraine nearly every year, according to a profile of him in a University of Alberta newsletter announcing the donation made in his honor by his sons. The profile said he also served as president of the parish council of St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Catholic Church in Thornhill, Ontario.

Ties between Hunka’s family and the politician who invited him

After the Forward article about Hunka’s past was picked up by news outlets around the world, Canadian lawmakers and Jewish groups rushed to condemn House Speaker Rota for inviting him. In his mea culpa, Rota made it sound like Hunka was a constituent from his district (called a “riding”) whom he did not know much about. “This initiative was entirely my own,“ Rota said, “the individual in question being from my riding and having been brought to my attention.” 

But Rejean Venne, an independent Canadian journalist, wrote in his Substack newsletter this week that Rota and Hunka family members have had numerous chances to cross paths over the years. Among Venne’s examples:

> One of Hunka’s sons, Martin, was chief financial officer of Redpath Mining, a multinational corporation headquartered in Rota’s district. Redpath has contributed to Rota’s campaigns and Rota has provided government funding for recreational facilities operated by Redpath. (The company did not respond to inquiries from the Forward made Thursday.)

> Martin Hunka has also served as chair of the board of trustees for North Bay Hospital, which is located in Rota’s district and which Rota has supported. Hunka’s name can no longer be found on the hospital’s website and social media posts. (The hospital did not respond to a request for comment emailed Thursday.) 

> North Bay Pride, an LGBTQ+ organization, gave an award to Rota nine months after Yaroslav’s granddaughter Leshya Lecappelain joined its board of directors. In 2022 and 2023, North Bay Pride received more than $100,000 in funding from Rota. (Asked about this, a spokesperson for North Bay Pride said Lecappelain had not been on its board for several years.)

“Rota’s response that this was a last-minute request doesn’t add up,” Venne said in an email interview. “The Hunka family appears well connected in Rota’s district.” 

The Forward could not determine whether Hunka and Rota met before he was honored at Parliament. Rota and others at the House of Commons did not respond to several requests for comment sent Wednesday and Thursday. 

Efforts to reach Yaroslav, Martin and Peter Hunka, Lecappelain and other members of the family for comment were also unsuccessful.

Endowments honoring Hunka and others tied to the SS

On Wednesday, the University of Alberta said it would return the CA$30,000 endowment that Hunka’s sons donated in 2019 in their father’s honor. The money was intended to fund research at the school’s Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies.

But Per Anders Rudling, a university alumnus and expert on Ukrainian nationalism who teaches at Sweden’s Lund University, said the Hunka fund is just “the top of an iceberg.” 

In an email to the Forward, Rudling said the University of Alberta has “much larger endowments” honoring other figures connected to the Waffen SS unit. The “most problematic,” he said, is the Volodymyr and Daria Kubijovych Memorial Endowment Fund. At CA$450,000 — about $334,000 — it’s 15 times larger than the Hunka fund the university is returning.

Rudling described Kubijovych as Ukraine’s chief collaborator with Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of occupied Poland. Kubijovych played a crucial role in convincing the Third Reich to create SS Galichina. He also lobbied for Ukrainians to seize Jewish property and advocated for ethnic cleansing. 

In comparison to Kubijovych, Rudling said, Hunka is “small fry.” 

In a Facebook post Thursday, Rudling also questioned university endowments named for other Galichina Division veterans, including Roman Kolisnyk, Levko Babij and Edward Brodacky.

Pointing to research he published in The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Rudling said, “I have tried to raise this issue in the past, to no avail.” 

Asked about Rudling’s concerns, Michael Brown, a spokesperson for the University of Alberta, reiterated a statement in which interim provost Verna Yiu said the school is “reviewing its general naming policies and procedures, including those for endowments, to ensure alignment with our values.” Yiu also expressed the school’s “commitment to address anti-Semitism in any of its manifestations, including the ways in which the Holocaust continues to resonate in the present.” 

The honors given to SS Galichina fighters extend beyond academia. One of the University of Alberta’s endowments is for its former chancellor Peter Savaryn, another SS Galichina member. In 1987, Savaryn was awarded the Order of Canada, among the nation’s highest honors, bestowed by Canada’s governor general, the representative of the British Crown. Mary Simon, the current governor general, has condemned the Hunka scandal as “a shock and an embarrassment.”

Controversial church leaders 

When the Hunka endowment was announced in 2020, the university said it would fund research on two “leaders of the underground Ukrainian Catholic Church,” Cardinal Josyf Slipyj and Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky. (A metropolitan is akin to a bishop.)

Slipyi was a deputy in Ukraine’s 1941 self-proclaimed government, which pledged to work closely with Germany under Hitler’s leadership. Slipyi also assigned chaplains to SS Galichina and celebrated the unit’s inaugural Mass. After the war, the Soviets sent him to gulag prison camps.

But Sheptytsky’s legacy is layered. He helped “dozens of Jews find refuge in his monasteries and even in his own home,” according to Yad Vashem, while also supporting “the German army as the savior of the Ukrainians from the Soviets.” 

Harvard University also houses a Ukrainian Research Institute. Asked, after Alberta’s announcement, whether that institute’s funding would be scrutinized for Nazi ties, the university said in a statement that the institute had never received money from the Hunkas, nor had it received donations designated for research related to SS Galichina. 

Harvard did, however, in 1974 establish a fellowship and faculty position in European studies with money from a foundation named for Alfred Krupp, who was convicted of war crimes for using slave laborers from Auschwitz to build and work in a factory.

Investigations into war crimes 

The Nuremberg Trials declared the Waffen-SS overall to be a criminal organization responsible for mass atrocities. But Canada let Hunka and 2,000 other veterans of the SS Galichina into the country anyway. 

Others from the unit settled in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. The Forward reported in August that Ukrainian veterans groups had erected monuments to their World War II service in a cemetery in suburban Philadelphia and outside Detroit, prompting outrage from Jewish organizations.

In Canada, questions about the Ukrainian immigrants’ past dogged them for decades, and in 1985, the country launched a Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals, known as the Deschênes Commission

Investigators were mostly limited to considering evidence gathered in Canada, and ultimately they came to the controversial conclusion that the Galichina Division “should not be indicted as a group” and that “mere membership” in the division was insufficient to justify prosecution or revoke citizenship.

This week, as Trudeau apologized for the Hunka salute, B’nai Brith Canada called for the full release of the commission’s report, which had been heavily redacted, along with other Holocaust-era records, in order to “restore public trust in our institutions.”

“Canadians deserve to know the full extent to which Nazi war criminals were permitted to settle in this country after the war,” the group said Tuesday.

Arrogance or naiveté? 

Why would Hunka’s family risk his humiliation, at age 98, by putting him under a spotlight? Did they not realize how his military record would be perceived and portrayed? 

“It’s arrogance. It’s not naiveté,” said Jack Porter, a research associate at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and himself a Jewish child survivor of the Holocaust, born in Ukraine. 

They know what their father did,” he said. “It’s hubris, it’s chutzpah. They rationalize that these men were fighting communism. If a few Jews were killed, they also were communists.”

Porter emphasized that Ukraine’s World War II history is complicated. More than 2.5 million Ukrainians died fighting against Germany. “There were many good Ukrainians; they should not all be stigmatized,” he said. 

But he said veterans who fought under the Nazis like Hunka and his compatriots have been emboldened by the whitewashing of their history, especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. 

“They’ve been hiding in plain sight,” he said. “They’ve been there for 60 years and nobody has touched them, so of course they feel OK.”

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Beth Harpaz
Beth Harpaz

Beth Harpaz is a reporter for the Forward. She previously worked for the Associated Press, first covering breaking news and politics, then as AP Travel editor. Follow her @literarydj or email [email protected].

Lev Golinkin
Lev Golinkin

Lev Golinkin is the author of "A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka," Amazon’s Debut of the Month, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program selection, and winner of the Premio Salerno Libro d’Europa. A graduate of Boston College, Golinkin came to the U.S. as a child refugee from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov (now called Kharkiv) in 1990. His writing on the Ukraine crisis, Russia, the far right, and immigrant and refugee identity has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, NBC, The Boston Globe, Politico Europe and Time.com, among others.