By Scott Taylor
There was a bizarre little story last week out of Ukraine, which was picked up by Radio-Canada International. It centered on Canada’s official participation in the dedication of a monument at a Jewish Cemetery in the town of Sambir.
Canada’s Ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk and at least three uniformed Canadian military personnel took part in the formal ceremony. The promise of this event was to promote a reconciliatory path forward for Ukrainians and Jews. This of course is a very delicate subject given the history of violent anti-Semitism in this region of western Ukraine.
In fact, the August 21 memorial dedication in Sambir itself served to clearly illustrate these divisions.
While the site of the ceremony was on the edge of a Jewish cemetery, which also served as a mass grave for some 1,200 Jews slaughtered in 1943 during the Holocaust, the monument was not dedicated to those victims.
Instead it featured a large granite cross and was erected in honour of 17 members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) who were allegedly executed by the German Gestapo in 1944. For the record, the OUN were Nazi collaborators who were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews and a 100,000 Poles.
By the end of WWII all of the approximately 6,000 Jewish residents were dead or expelled and during the decades of Soviet communism the eradication of this community went unrecognized.
Fast forward to year 2000, and under the initiative of Canadian Jewish philanthropist Jack Gardner a stone monument was erected in Sambir to commemorate these Holocaust victims. In a shocking turn of events local Ukrainian nationalists tore down the monument and instead erected three ten-metre tall wooden crucifixes. These three crosses were claimed to honour the 17 executed OUN members, which are now immortalized by the new granite monument.
The exact circumstances surrounding the deaths of these 17 OUN fighters was questioned in the Times of Israel by noted Swedish historian Per Rudling. As an expert in the history of the OUN, Rudling found the Ukrainian version to be ‘dubious’ because while the OUN had briefly turned against the Germans, by August 1944 when the alleged executions occurred, the OUN was in full collaboration with the Nazis.
The August 21 ceremony also featured participation of Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, which drew stern criticism from prominent Jewish leaders and Holocaust scholars.
Efram Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre told the Times of Israel “It is incomprehensible how a Rabbi would participate in such a ceremony. This is clearly a white wash of the horrible crimes committed against Jews in Sambir and only reinforces the highly problematic tendency in Ukraine to hide Holocaust crimes committed by Ukrainians.”
Rabbi Bleich claimed that his participation in the event was a ‘necessary comprise’, which will eventually pave the way to a monument recognizing the Jewish Holocaust victims as well.
This bring us back to the official participation in such a controversial ceremony by a Canadian diplomat, and even more disturbing the use of our soldiers in uniform being as symbolic props.
I’m sure none of the soldiers present that day were aware of the war crimes associated with the OUN. Whether or not the 17 executed members of the OUN actually committed crimes against Jews is irrelevant. The organization to which they belonged was responsible for horrific crimes against humanity. If local Ukrainian nationalists in the town of Sambir wish to revise their history and continue to exhibit blatant acts of anti-Semitism that should not be supported by Canada. It certainly should not be given the appearance of official sanction by having Canadian soldiers commemorate those who collaborated with Hitler’s Nazis in perpetrating the Holocaust.
In WWII there were over 40,000 Ukrainian Canadians who proudly wore the Canadian uniform and bravely fought to defeat the Nazi’s. They are the ones deserving of official Canadian commemoration.