Antisemitism, Agnotology and Canada; Enmity with Russia Has Justified the Unspeakable

The unspeakable has happened: the standing ovation by Canadian parliament for Yaroslav Hunka, Ukrainian veteran of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division.
October 12, 2023
Screenshot from YouTube

Last month, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman underlined the growing rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. As the world awaits the Kingdom entering the Abraham Accords, the Saudis have quietly lain antisemitism to rest just at the same moment that the Western Alliance courts, evades and sometimes celebrates antisemitism and far from here arms Neo-Nazis. Today Israel and Saudi Arabia face the maniacal retaliation for daring to approach peace from the rabidly Islamist Iranian theocracy in the unfolding conflict of Hamas invading Israel and Hezbollah poised to do the same. Almost forgotten is the obscenity of the Canadian Parliament hailing a veteran Nazi: enmity with Russia justifies even the unspeakable.

The unspeakable has happened: the standing ovation by  Canadian parliament for Yaroslav Hunka, Ukrainian veteran of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division. Hunka was lauded in full view of Zelensky (himself applauding with emotion) saluted as a warrior who had fought against the Russians.

The events have ignited an uproar in Canada. The Canadian Speaker of the House promptly resigned; Canada – already struggling with the Deschenes Commission ( a 1985 inquiry into 800 cases of people suspected of being Nazis accused of war crimes and crimes  against humanity, much of which remains redacted) is now facing intensified calls to unseal the record and  release the names of hundreds of Nazis provided sanctuary in Canada after World War Two, even as  Canada repeatedly denied entrance to fleeing Jews on the SS St. Louis. Former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie had  withheld entry to the Jews on board by saying ‘ None is too many” condemning many of the Jewish passengers to death in concentration camps as the ship returned to Nazi Europe.  Around the world millions wonder, Canada, what the heck happened?

I called my friend in Toronto, Shael Rosenbaum- grandson of four Polish Holocaust survivors, leads  Canada’s Yad Vashem in Toronto. I needed to know what the Canadian Jewish community and Canada’s Holocaust survivor community were feeling.  I knew Shael would know- almost 200 members of Shael’s family were murdered in the Holocaust.

Shael’s grandparents survived multiple concentration camps including Auschwitz, Dachau and Bergen Belson.  The vast majority of his maternal ancestors were murdered in Treblinka. Others were shot in the forests around Staszow by the Einsatzgruppen. Shael is alive only because his maternal grandparents were saved by a Righteous Among the Nations designated Catholic Polish woman in Staszow, Poland (hidden with 14 other Jews in a cellar) while his father who lost most of his family in Auschwitz was born after the Shoah in a displaced persons center in Straubing Germany.

Today Shael’s philanthropy is devoted to preserving the memory of the Shoah and  tolerance building.  Shael’ s day job is as property developer. Ironically, some of his developments are within 50 miles of Toronto where monuments to Ukrainian divisions -similar to the Waafen SS Galicia- still stand (one such monument stands in Oakville Ontario and another in the province of Alberta- testament to Canada willful blindness to its long history of accommodating Nazis and Nazi collaborators in plain view

In  World War Two  Russians were fighting alongside the Western Allies in pitch battle against Nazi Germany and Naziism. Russia is estimated to have lost 27 million lives in this war. In WW2 there was no battle for ‘Ukrainian Independence’ at that time- the Ukrainians were fighting under German command until the end of World War Two .

This escaped all  officials hosting the 98 year old Nazi veteran. Apologies including from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – have contorted around the unwavering demonization of Russia, again evading the parliamentarians’ revisionist history which amounts to Holocaust denial- currently under consideration for criminalization in Canada.

Worse, Hunka was honored  almost on the exact date of the 82nd anniversary of the 1941 Babyn Yar Massacre- arguably the most horrific single event during the Holocaust when, over several days, almost a hundred thousand Jews were driven into a ravine hundreds of feet deep, shot, and left to die- the worst single atrocity against the Jews committed  during the Holocaust.

Shael reminds me that throughout the  55000 oral testimonies recorded of Holocaust Survivors in both visual and audio recordings at the USC Shoah foundation, survivors repeatedly underline the ruthlessness of such Ukrainian divisions as those that committed the Babyn Yar massacre- divisions similar to the one Hunka belonged to. Survivors in their testimonies repeatedly distinguish the Ukrainian Nazis for their particular relish in the execution for Jews as a blood sport.

As  national chair of the Canadian Yad Vashem Society, Shael reminds me that there were certainly honorable Ukrainians who sheltered Jews from the Holocaust. Just under 2700 Righteous Among the Nations honorees exist from Ukraine- awarded the extraordinary honor bestowed on those who sheltered one jew or multiple jews from murder – their valor verified by deep research performed by Yad Vashem and the State of Israel.

Ukraine has long avoided acknowledging its participation in World War Two instead choosing to take the role of victim or hero but never perpetrator.

Certainly both  Ukraine and Russia have been responsible for countless acts over centuries targeting Jewish citizens including the programs that occurred in the late 19th century and early 20th century in Russia under the Romanov imperial dynasty and led to the mass exodus of Jews out of Russia.   Those that escaped these genocides settled in surrounding nations including Ukraine Poland and Western Europe or traveled across the Atlantic to north and South America.

The Jewish people who settled in Ukraine continued to face a constant threat. Many lived in small towns known as Shtetels and were very religious and quite insular often subject to attacks by non-Jewish Ukrainian neighbors. As the second world war began Ukrainian citizens viewed Russia and the Red Army as perpetrators and the Nazis as allies and liberators. In this way the Ukrainians who fought in the second world war were fighting for and with the Nazis both directly and indirectly.

But Ukrainians were not mere bystanders- countless Ukrainians were ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners” as Daniel Goldhagen has identified- the Holocaust would be impossible without mass participation of wide swathes of society well beyond the Nazis themselves.  Before the Wansee Conference on the Final Solution in January 1942, most of the Jewish people murdered with killed by members of the Einsatzgruppen. These mobile killing squads were comprised mostly of German Nazis but also contained Ukrainian troops. More than one quarter of all Jewish people murdered in the Holocaust died at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen.

As the Final Solution reached full force there were six extermination camps created in Occupied Poland. Three of the camps- Belzek, Sobibor and Treblinka ( where so much of  Shael’s family was lost)- were responsible for the murder of 1.5 million individual Jewish lives. Many of the soldiers operating these camps originated in the Ukraine. The well-known trial and story of Ukranian Nazi collaborator Ivan Demjanuk and his time at Sobibor ( eventually convicted as an accessory to the murder of 28,060 murders) is just one such example.  Today over  76 years after the end of the War, Nazis remain honored actively in Ukraine. During national holidays it is common to see people dressed in full SS regalia. Stefan Bandera who is a Ukrainian Nazi collaborator is still celebrated as a hero.

So how does Canada explain itself?

Former Federal justice minister for Canada, Irwin Cotler points to the ‘ failure of indifference and inaction’ over Canada’s history with Nazis contributing to the parliament’s ignorant recognition of the Nazi veteran. Numerous commentators also point to ignorance, as if there is a void concerning the greatest crime against humanity ever committed. What Cotler  and other commentors overlook is the deliberate manufacture of ignorance- agnotology as it is known to those who study the culture and manufacture of ignorance.

Robert Proctor, Stanford University’s eminent historian and author of “ Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance’ observes  while  it is sometimes true that ignorance is where knowledge has not yet penetrated; other times ignorance is deliberately manufactured and even reclaimed from known truths. We like to think of ignorance as a void, an absence of information, a lack of knowledge, but structural ignorance can also be manufactured, cultivated and nurtured consciously and unconsciously for deliberate purposes.

The secrecy of the Deschenes Inquiry for instance is a deliberate act to keep Canadians from knowing their own history of  providing sanctuary to Nazis.  Canada’s profound ignorance demonstrated in  parliament  is also  borne of a deliberate and sustained lack of Holocaust education resulting in a  horrific perpetuation of antisemitism and another denial of Jewish history.

From the inception of the Russia Ukraine conflict the loss of human life has been accompanied by the casualty of reason and the deliberate manufacture of ignorance- secrecy is not only in the national interest, it is vital in sustaining ignorance. This can be true for all wars while they are waged and all too often long after.

Both sides have accused the other of both Nazism and Antisemitism. Fearing accusations of pro-Russian propaganda, complexity and nuance do not play well on tv for the 3 to 5 minute slots between commercials. The  deep investment in a black and white narrative which claims Russia is unadulterated evil and Ukraine is purely good is exactly the reason why the Canadian parliament found itself in an untenably obscene position.

Jewish advocacy groups around the world see what we see. Indeed, many of them are our colleagues and dear friends. Unfortunately, they have placed themselves in the same black and white construct– Russia is evil, Ukraine is good. This bind  has left them  powerless to defend the memory and lives of Jewish people today who are forced to bear witness to yet more Holocaust distortion and denial. Once again  Jews alive today, and the memories and legacies of Jews murdered in the Shoah and other genocides are  doubly silenced.

We must  acknowledge we are deliberately withholding complex truths surrounding Russia and Ukraine. Speaking truthfully and with complexity does not empower Putin. Quite the opposite, it restores our own moral fabric.  Speech is the first defense of the memory of the Jewish lives and other lives lost in the Shoah. Speech is the first step to defending an endangered Global Jewry, their history and the world’s shared history that has carried us through the inferno of the Holocaust and since.  Ignorance, far from bliss, is an abyss, the author of genocides and all too often the willing executioner of the voiceless.  Islam has a specific directive on the duty of a Muslim to speak up against injustice as the bare minimum of faith. Join me and do the same.

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