In Ukraine

Commentary by Henry Srebrnik, published as a guest column on the website of Toronto journalist Sheldon Kirshner, March 13, 2017

I’ll lay my cards on the table: I have never been particularly fond of Chrystia Freeland’s attitude towards the Russian Federation. And when, reading her biography on Wikipedia, and noting that her mother was born in a displaced persons’ camp in postwar Germany, I felt this probably meant that her own grandparents had most likely fled Ukraine ahead of the returning Soviets.

In itself there was nothing wrong with that, though I have always been aware that in the western Ukraine, inhabited by anti-Russian nationalists largely Ukrainian Catholic (Uniate) by religion, collaboration with the German invaders was a major issue in World War II.

It never would have occurred to me, though, that her grandfather, Michael (Mykhailo) Chomiak, was not just a simple collaborator, but actually ran a Ukrainian newspaper, Krakivski Visti (Cracow News) in Nazi-occupied Cracow, Poland, on behalf of the Nazi regime.

Chomiak’s work was directly supervised by Emil Gassner, the head of the Nazi press department there and it contained numerous antisemitic stories and revelled at German triumphs over the Allies in the early stages of the conflict. Other writers have now provided excerpts of his enthusiasm for “cleansing” various cities, including Kyiv, of Jews

All this, while millions of Jews were being slaughtered in nearby death camps such as Belzec and Auschwitz.

So enmeshed was he with the Nazi Generalgouvernment, headed by Hans Frank, that in the last stages of the war, he fled west with the retreating Nazis, and continued editing the paper from Vienna, until the final collapse of the Third Reich

All this has now become public knowledge, along with the fact that Freeland not only kept quiet about this  — understandable  — but also fabricated her grandfather’s biography to make him appear a simple Ukrainian patriot opposed to both Stalin and Hitler, one who struggled “to return freedom and democracy to Ukraine,” rather than an enthusiastic collaborator

My own life story is one almost the exact opposite. My parents were Polish Jews from Czestochowa, whose entire families in Europe were wiped out in the Holocaust. They were themselves in a Nazi concentration camp until liberated by Soviet troops in January 1945. I would otherwise not be alive today.

So, clearly, I have a very different perspective regarding the Russians, though I would never consider myself an apologist for Stalin’s (or Putin’s) crimes, and I have, in fact, written a number of books regarding the naiveté of those Jews who allowed their anti-fascist sympathies to blind them to those crimes

It needn’t have to be said that Chrystia Freeland, born long after the war ended, is not responsible for her grandfather’s war crimes, though it might have stood her in better stead had she condemned these long ago, especially once she entered public life, when they were bound to be unearthed sooner or later.

She has known the truth for some two decades.

In other words, the problem isn’t that her grandfather was a Nazi collaborator — she can’t, obviously, be blamed for this — but that she defended him, in essence serving as a propagandist and purveyor of what people nowadays call “fake” news.

Various members of the Ukrainian Canadian community, and some Canadian newspapers, have tried to whitewash Chomiak’s wartime activities, portraying the situation in Polish Galicia as a complicated one involving rival nationalist and irredentist currents — Germans, Poles, and Ukrainians were all vying for control of the same area and Hitler played them off against each other.

While the situation they describe in wartime Galicia is true, it should never excuse complicity in genocide and mass murder. Tout comprendre, est ce tout excuser ? Cracow’s Jewish population was 70,000, one-quarter of the city, in November 1939. By the end of the war in May 1945, 4,282 were found to have survived.

Not only have they sympathized with Freeland’s own rewriting of her grandfather’s history, they also try to turn the tables against Putin by portraying Freeland as a victim. One article in Maclean’s magazine, for example, suggested that the Russians have been trying to discredit Freeland, an outspoken advocate for continued sanctions, “with a smear job about her grandparents.” (A smear, though, usually implies slanderous accusations; this story turns out to be true.)

None of our Canadian political parties have made any statements either. More disturbing, though, for me, is the silence of our own Jewish community and its newspapers.

I wrote an article about this issue, which has been published in the Guardian on Prince Edward Island, and a blog called the Prince Arthur Herald. However, when I submitted the same piece to the Canadian Jewish News, the major organ of the community, mainly distributed in Toronto and Montreal, and the Jewish Free Press in Calgary, neither decided to print it.

The editor of the CJN told me that “the story was still evolving” so they didn’t want to publish anything yet, while from Calgary the answer was that it is “a very complex subject.” It’s painless for us in Canada today to denounce everyone who had Nazi connections in those days. But some of those Ukrainians were just trying to survive themselves.” Hence, “it’s not an absolute black and white thing.”

But surely, for Jews, it is an absolute black and white thing. Chomiak was part of a killing machine that murdered six million of us!

While Canadian Jews in years past worried about Stephen Harper being an antisemite, and continued to worship Pierre Trudeau, little did they know that Trudeau’s son, Justin, would one day appoint as Canada’s foreign minister the granddaughter of a Nazi collaborator — whom she provided with a sanitized biography, and one who also passionately hates the people who at least helped save the pitiful remnants of East European Jewry that survived people like Chomiak.

But, as far as I can see, there hasn’t been a peep out of our Jewish “leaders.” Are they so enmeshed in supporting Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party? Is it sheer opportunism, or not wishing to rock the boat?

It reminds me of the timid “sha-shtil” attitudes of pre-war Canadian Jewry in the face of Canadian anti-semitism, which resulted in the country accepting virtually no European Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. It makes all of those Holocaust “never again” statements seem hollow.

No, we can’t demand that Trudeau fire Freeland, despite her dissembling and attempts to turn this into a story of Russian attacks on her. But surely our leaders should, at the least, state their disappointment in her lack of candor.

As for myself, I now feel as if I’m living in a country not my own, one where the foreign affairs minister is the granddaughter of a high-level Nazi collaborator in World War II, and has praised him in the past. This is what it means to be in the galut.

Of course, the post-2014 Ukrainian regime, its support coming mainly from western Ukraine, itself passed a law in 2015 that grants recognition, as fighters for Ukrainian independence, to Stepan Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. They have been designated “defenders of the fatherland.” Streets have been renamed and statutes erected for Bandera.

These organizations were allied for much of the war with Hitler and participated in the massacres of many thousands of Jewish and Polish civilians. Poland itself has protested their rehabilitation.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Related reading:
Canadian foreign minister should acknowledge the truth, by Sheldon Kirshner, The Times of Israel, March 9, 2017


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