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Standing in Shame

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There are two Canadian standing ovations that I will never forget.

The first one took place on March 1st, 1996 and it lasted 16 full minutes. That ovation took place at the old Montreal Forum and it was a well-deserved tribute to the great Maurice Richard, a Montreal hockey icon.

The second standing ovation, which occurred in the House of Commons and which lasted 17 seconds – took place last week. That ovation will now live in infamy. The House of Commons and its members present saluted Yarolsav Hunka, a former member of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, as a “hero”.

Hunka’s invitation, we are told, was an egregious mistake. But how could a mistake of this nature take place in the House of Commons – the heart of Canadian democracy – the very same chamber where human rights activist and a true Canadian hero Professor Irwin Cotler sat as a member of Parliament and as Justice Minister.

In a 2011 blog about his wartime experiences, Hunka wrote (translated):

“In July 1941, the German army occupied Berezhany.  We greeted the German soldiers with joy. Narid (the people) felt a thaw, knowing that there would be no more of that dreaded knocking on the door in the middle of the night, and at least it would be possible to sleep peacefully now.

After entering Berezhany, the Germans occupied the new gymnasium under the administrative building, and our classes were moved to the old traditional place – the second floor of the town hall. 

The new “liberator” of the Ukrainian people – Führer Hitler – reigned over the Berezhansk land. Portraits of Hitler in a long overcoat with a raised collar covering his menacing face with small, as if artificially attached whiskers under his sharp nose, and with the inscription “Hitler-liberator” hung in each classes The Führer immediately revealed his plans for Ukraine, liquidating the provisional Ukrainian government in Lviv and imprisoning Ukrainian leaders in concentration camps.

[…]

I just turned 16, and the next two years were the happiest years of my life. I had no idea that what I experienced in those two years would fill me with love for my native city in such a way that it would be enough for me for the rest of my life. I didn’t know then that dreams about those two years, about the company of charming girls, about carelessly cheerful friends, about fragrant evenings in the luxurious castle park and walks around the city would help me get through the anxious times of the following years. That the memories of the Berezhansk Gymnasium in the old town hall, with its professors and with its increasingly cheerful and noisy students, will support my heart and soul in a foreign land in the coming decades.”. (https://komb-a-ingwar.blogspot.com/2011/03/blog-post_21.html)

Those were good times. For Hunka.

For the Jews of Brezezany, the summer of 1941 was very different.

The Brezazny Jewish community was 400 years old at the outbreak of the second world war. The community boasted the “Large Synagogue”, built in 1718. It also boasted the “Cantor’s Synagogue”, “Reb Yudel’s Synagogue”, the “Tschortkower Klois”, the “Jair Synagogue”, “Rabbi Mendele’s Synagogue”, the “Old Stretiner Klois”, the “Rozler Klois” (also known as the “Big Synagogue”), the “Potiker Kloizel” and the “People’s Center” – the central building of Brezazny’s Jewish community, which eventually became the building used by the Nazis and their collaborators as a detention place for the Jews.

The community of Brezazny also had a Jewish sport club, a dramatic society, a Jewish National Fund, a Hebrew School and a burial society. The Zionist movements of Hashomer Hatzair, Hechalutz, Mizrachi and Betar were all active in Brezazny.

While Hunka celebrated and embraced the arrival of the Nazis, the Jewish community despaired. In the community’s memorial book authored by the few Brezazner’s who survived the war and rebuilt their lives in New York and Israel, the authors provide a glimpse into those early days of the Nazi occupation:

The Germans entered our town on Tuesday and the following Wednesday night, a battle broke out between the German occupying forces and a detachment of the Soviet cavalry. The streets were full of dead soldiers and dead horses. The next day the German commander of the town issued an order that the streets had to be cleaned by the Jews in one day. Another German officer who supervised this work, picked out 3 Jews and shot them.

On Friday, a rumour spread that in the local prison, a locked cell containing 12 dead prisoners had been discovered. Right away, the Ukrainians spread a rumour that the Jews had killed these prisoners. The Sabbath passed by in relative quietness, however, on Sunday, mobs of peasants came from the countryside to pray in the church. There they received encouragement from their leaders to attack the Jews. The peasants then scattered throughout the town and murdered and wounded, in bestial cruelty, hundreds of Jews then robbed them of their possessions. At first, the dead were buried in the city park. Later, our people, guided by Ginsburg, transferred the dead from the public park to the Jewish cemetery. A total of 250 people were killed besides those who were killed in the Christian cemetery. The complaints of the local Jewish committee to the Nazi commandant of the town were answered by a number of announcements which informed us of a great number of anti-Jewish laws.”.

Over the next few months, the situation of the Brezazny Jewish community worsened.

On December 15-16 of 1941, the Nazis, under the supervision of Ukrainian militia, organized a caravan of 600 men who were marched towards the city of Podhaice. They were murdered in a mass grave and the spot of the massacre was later located by some of the survivors. That was the beginning of the end for the glorious Jewish community of Brezazny.

By May of 1943, the 12,000 Jews of Brezazny were no more. Only a few survived.

If the House of Commons wants to offer a heartfelt standing ovation – they should salute the Holocaust survivors who arrived at Canadian shores broken and battered and yet they built families, businesses, communities and institutions. Salute the fact that a demoralized and broken people rose from the ashes of the Holocaust and built a vibrant and thriving State of Israel. They should salute the fact that when Russia launched its attack on Ukraine – the State of Israel and Israel-based NGOs immediately deployed humanitarian aid, expertise and advanced field hospitals. These tents were the first sites that Ukrainian refugees saw when crossing the border into Poland. They should salute the fact that the today – the State of Israel is vibrant and robust and that its security expertise and technology is now sought by the world over, including Ukraine.

That would be worthy of a 16 minute standing ovation. That is the answer to Yaroslav Hunka.

About the Author
Lawrence Witt is a labor, employment and human rights lawyer with the Canadian firm Miller Thomson LLP. In 2017, Lawrence was co-chair of the Montreal March of the Living Delegation comprising of 250 participants accompanied by 10 Holocaust survivors. In 2019, Lawrence received the Gertrude and Henry Plotnick Young Leadership Award from Federation CJA. Lawrence is also a graduate of the Wexner Heritage Program. In the early 1990's, Lawrence studied at Yeshivat Machon Meir in Jerusalem and he subsequently served in the IDF as a lone soldier in the Armored Corps.
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