(JTA) – Over the past few weeks, tributes to Ukrainian Nazi collaborators in North America have led to local and international upheaval.
On Tuesday, the speaker of the Canadian House of Commons resigned after saluting a 98-year-old man who had fought for one such unit, commonly referred to as as the Waffen SS or SS Galichina. And in Philadelphia, a controversy surrounding the same unit played out on a smaller scale: Local Jewish groups protested a monument to the SS division in a Catholic cemetery in the suburb of Elkins Park, and local Catholic leaders covered it up.
But in a third instance where the same SS unit is being honored, the local Jewish reaction has been far more muted. After learning about an SS Galichina memorial in a Detroit suburb, that city’s Jewish Community Relations Council told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency it did not intend to make a fuss over it.
“I believe we could use this to positively have a dialogue with our Ukrainian neighbors, but don’t think it would be worth it to make a statement of condemnation or asking for its removal,” Daniel Bucksbaum of the Detroit JCRC/AJC said in an email.
The memorials in Detroit and Philadelphia, and the nonagenarian’s Nazi past, were all first reported by Lev Golinkin, a writer for the Forward. He has cataloged monuments to Nazis and their collaborators around the world, and in the Detroit case, detailed a memorial “dedicated to Ukrainian and Ukrainian-American veterans” on a private bank in the suburb of Warren. Veterans of SS Galichina are named as one of the monument’s sponsors — though they’re referred to by a different name on the structure.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who heads the Detroit JCRC/AJC, said he was developing a relationship with the local Ukrainian community and said “discussing history and past antisemitism will definitely be part of this process.” But he said he would be hesitant to press the issue of the SS Galichina memorial at present, in part because of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine.
“I believe the time is now to support Ukraine, and defending itself against Russia,” Lopatin wrote in an email. He added, “There certainly is a lot to do, but there is a right time for everything and also a wrong time for everything.”
There are existing ties between the local Ukrainian and Jewish communities. Lopatin has attended ceremonies commemorating the Holodomor, the Soviet-imposed famine that caused millions of Ukrainians to starve to death in the 1930s (and which some far-right Ukrainians blame on the Jews). A Ukrainian museum in Hamtramck, a Detroit suburb with significant Ukrainian, Polish and Yemeni populations, has also offered to host an upcoming exhibit of Yemeni Jewish art.
Lopatin also believes the intentions behind the Warren memorial may not be sinister. “There is a difference between honoring a genocidal regiment or saying that their veterans gave [money] for a general memorial for Ukrainian Veterans,” he told JTA.
Golinkin, however, called the Detroit Jewish groups’ silence “shameful.”
“It’s astounding that, during a global surge of white supremacy and Holocaust distortion, Jewish organizations in Detroit are electing to remain silent about a monument to the SS in their city,” the writer told JTA.
The mayor of Warren, James Fouts, told the Forward that “there’s not even a minute chance that we would support anything like this,” but added, “I don’t think we can do much for a monument on private land.”
The varying responses point to the difficulties American Jews have long faced in navigating relationships with their Ukrainian neighbors, both during Ukraine’s current war with Russia and historically. Ukraine’s allies in the West during its current conflict have been reluctant to bring up its Nazi history at the same time that Russian propaganda has tried to paint the present invasion as a war of “denazification.”
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University who was also heavily involved in the movement to free Soviet Jewry, told JTA that many of the same issues were present during that movement’s heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.
“It was awkward,” Sarna said. He recalled that Jewish activists of that era broke bread with Ukrainian nationalists, who were also opposed to the Soviets. The Jewish activists were pushing for the USSR to allow Jews to emigrate, while the Ukrainian activists protested that the Soviet Union had robbed their country of independence.
“There was an effort to explain, but it was difficult,” Sarna said. Ukrainians had tried to get the Jewish community to appear at celebrations honoring General Roman Shukhevych, who fought in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army alongside Nazi forces. “It served as a reminder that, yes, there was a common enemy in those days, the Soviet Union. But on the other hand, there was also a lot of distinctive history that precluded too close a tie.”
Local Jewish leaders’ reactions to the Philadelphia monument were far more vocal. Soon after the Forward identified a three-decade-old monument depicting the insignias of the SS Galichina division in a Catholic cemetery in the suburb of Elkins Park, the local Jewish federation condemned it.
That led other Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, to issue their own condemnations. Ukrainians should “recognize that this cannot remain,” the AJC said. (Lopatin’s group is affiliated with the AJC but in this case is departing from the national organization’s approach.)
Soon, the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, which operates the cemetery, covered up the memorial, announcing on Facebook that it would pursue community discussions “in order to prevent vandalism and with the goal of conducting an objective dialogue with sensitivity to all concerned.”
Yet when it comes to the Philadelphia memorial, not all Jews are aligned in opposition. A controversial Ukrainian Jewish communal organization has voiced support for the monument.
“Indication that the monument must be dismantled ‘as soon as possible’ is inconsistent with a format for discussions on historical subjects in the twenty-first century,” Vaad of Ukraine said in a statement, alleging that some of “the published articles” about the monument “resemble KGB falsifications.”
Leaders of the group, which partners with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an aid group, and claims to represent the interests of more than 250 Ukrainian Jewish groups, say they have not seen evidence that “the soldiers in whose memory this monument was raised thirty years ago” were involved in war crimes.
Vaad of Ukraine has come under fire in the past for defending Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, and for claiming in 2018 that Russia was manipulating U.S. efforts to condemn Ukraine for honoring those same Nazi-affiliated figures. Dozens of other Ukrainian Jewish organizations have stated that the group and its leaders “do not represent all Ukrainian Jews.”