May 25, 2024

A controversial memorial to Ukrainian soldiers who served in a Nazi unit during the second world war has been removed from a Canadian cemetery following years of protests by community groups who described the shrine as “painful” and offensive.

The cenotaph, which had stood in the privately owned St Volodymyr Ukrainian cemetery in Oakville, Ontario, was removed on Saturday.

The memorial, erected in 1988, was a tribute to the First Ukrainian Division, better known as the Waffen-SS “Galicia” Division or the SS 14th Waffen Division, a volunteer unit under the command of the Nazis.

Related: ‘Canada has a dark history with Nazis’: political scandal prompts reckoning

The cenotaph has long been a source of tension between Canada’s Ukrainian diaspora – many of whom had survived Stalin’s campaign of mass starvation and held strongly anti-Soviet views – and Jewish and Polish communities, who see the cenotaph as a tribute to a Nazi division believed to have committed widespread murder.

In June 2020 the words “Nazi war monument” were spray-painted on the cenotaph. And in recent months its notoriety has deepened following visits by white nationalist groups.

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre welcomed the “elimination, albeit overdue” of a memorial that “honoured and glorified individuals who served in a Nazi military unit and were complicit in war crimes committed during the Holocaust, ultimately distorting Holocaust history”.

But a subsequent statement from the cemetery that the monument had been transported to “enable its repair” raised questions over whether the removal was temporary.

“Monument to the Veterans of the First Ukrainian Division located at our parish’s St Volodymyr Ukrainian Cemetery in Oakville has been defaced with graffiti several times in the past few years,” the cemetery’s office said in an emailed statement.

“Recently it was more seriously damaged by vandals. After much consideration and consultation with descendants of the division (owners of the monument), it has been decided to remove the monument to enable its repair.”

A sign was also erected at the site which said the memorial had been “removed for repair”.

But Rabbi Stephen Wise, leader of the Shaarei-Beth El Congregation of Oakville, said the removal was permanent.

“It is not going back up,” Wise told the Guardian. “People had, irresponsibly, put up signs suggesting that it might be coming back – but it will not.”

Wise said the decision came after “long and difficult discussions” with the Ukrainian community over the statue.

“”We spoke about what this monument represented to each group and how we could move ahead,” said Wise. “And to their credit, they listened, they heard us and now it’s finally resolved.”

The removal of the memorial has once again highlighted Canada’s complicated legacy of resettling Ukrainian nationalists with strong ties to the Nazis.

After the war, thousands of Ukrainians moved to Canada. But possible links to the Nazis were largely overlooked as the cold war set in, said Ivan Katchanovski, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa.

The group largely “escaped scrutiny” because few people realized the First Ukrainian Division was just a different name for the SS 14th Waffen Division.

In September, the speaker of Canada’s parliament resigned after inviting a 98-year old veteran of the 14th Division to attend a special session of the house during a visit by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president.

Two other statues commemorating Nazi collaborators remain in Canada, but Wise said the removal of the Oakville shrine was a hard-won victory which reflected the value of honest discussion between groups.

“It’s been a long battle but at the end of the day, I’m happy,” said Wise. “I don’t believe a Nazi monument belongs on Canadian soil.”

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