TORONTO — For years, the Ukrainian-Canadian community has been on the defensive over the Jewish community’s allegations that Nazi war criminals — many of them of Ukrainian origin — were living in Canada. Now, a Ukrainian-Canadian organization has turned the tables by accusing several elderly Jews of having been involved in Soviet war crimes.
The Ukrainian-Canadian Civil Liberties Association is alleging that three Jewish men and one Jewish woman now living in Canada had been members of Smersh, a Second World War Soviet counter-intelligence unit, and the NKVD, the pre-KGB Soviet secret police. The Ukrainian association cited memoirs and interviews in which the Jews themselves described their links to atrocities committed by Soviet units against Ukrainian and other anti-Communist civilians.
The Ukrainian association is demanding that a commission of inquiry to be set up to investigate the claims and that communist war-crimes suspects in Canada be denaturalized and deported, if the evidence warrants such steps. The demands hearkened back to the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals, organized in the mid-1980s, which found prima facie evidence that 20 residents of Canada had committed Nazi war crimes. The commission declared that in 97 more cases, such evidence might exist in Eastern European countries.
After years of unsuccessful prosecutions of a number of those alleged war criminals, Canada’s Justice Department switched course in 1995 and adopted the American approach: It began denaturalization and deportation proceedings in civil courts instead of trying to convict suspects in criminal cases. The Ukrainian-Canadian association vigorously opposed such tactics, but now is urging that they be applied to Soviet war criminals.
“Now we’re saying to the government, fine, if that’s the way you’re going to have it, apply it equitably,” said Lubomyr Luciuk, research director of the Ukrainian-Canadian association. “They’ve never looked, as far as we know, at Soviet war crimes. Any war criminals found in Canada or anywhere else should be brought to justice.”
The association’s allegations first appeared publicly in a recent article in The Globe and Mail newspaper, which published extracts from accounts previously given by the four Jews in memoirs and interviews. The extracts did not specify whether the Jewish operatives themselves killed anyone, but indicated that they were associated with Red Army or partisan units that did.
For example, Nadia Otsep, an 84-year-old Montreal resident, was a doctor attached to Smersh and her unit followed behind the Red Army infantry as it advanced through Ukraine in 1943. When unwilling conscripts were forced to dig their own graves and then executed, it was her job to jump into the graves and check that all those inside were dead. “I had to do it,” she told The Globe and Mail. “There was a rule. You had to go into the army.”
The Forward was unable to reach Otsep for comment.
Luciuk made an observation based on his reading of the memoirs written by two of the Jews: “These people were all personally involved; in their own words, they participated in the torture and killing of people they saw as the enemy. Of course, they could be liars. It’s not for me to judge.”
“Is this antisemitic?” he added. “No, it’s anti-Soviet.”
Luciuk and the association were criticized by Jewish organizations.
“What the Ukrainian Canadians are doing is confusing matters,” said Leo Adler, national affairs director at Toronto’s Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center. “They’re trying to divert attention from the sheer number of Ukrainians who participated in [Nazi] atrocities.”
Based only on reading the newspaper accounts, Adler said, it appears that the four Jews “were not doing the atrocities that normally attract attention and vilification as crimes against humanity or war crimes.”
“I think we will find that whereas [the Jews] were drafted, many of the Ukrainians volunteered” to serve as Nazi concentration camp guards, Adler said.
Terry Beitner, director of the war crimes section of the Canadian Justice Department, declined to comment on whether an investigation is under way. He said that under Canadian law, an individual is considered complicit in war crimes or crimes against humanity if he or she “contributes, directly or indirectly” to such a crime or served in a unit while it carried out such atrocities.
Since 1995, Canadian legal proceedings against suspected war criminal have taken the form of denaturalization and deportation hearings. The key test is whether the suspect lied about being a member of a prohibited organization when questioned by immigration officials on entering Canada, and therefore should have been excluded from lawful immigration.
The Justice Department also weighs whether an individual’s participation in a prohibited organization was voluntary or forced. “If you were a member of a certain unit pre-1941, then there may be an assumption your membership was voluntary,” Beitner said. “But post-1941 and into 1942 to ’43, many people were conscripted; so if they said they were conscripted and joined at a certain time, they may not be excluded.”