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.