Globe and Mail | 25Apr2005 | Kirk Makin
Justice reporter

Debate over war crimes gets heated

Ukrainian, Jewish groups disagree over whom Canada should prosecute

MONTREAL -- Joseph Riwash's partisan outfit wasted little time on Ukrainian villagers who were reluctant to join them in battle against Nazi occupying forces during the Second World War.

Resisters were "shot then and there," the Montreal man wrote in 1991 in a privately published memoir. "Such was the justice practised among the partisans in those days."

Elsewhere in Ukraine, another Montreal man -- Nahun Kohn -- was fighting for much of the war with a partisan group who routinely killed anti-Soviet Ukrainians or those thought to have harmed Jewish civilians.

In one such attack, "bullets were flying hot and thick, and one of our bullets set the hut on fire," Mr. Kohn wrote in a memoir. "We watched it burn, and we made sure that nobody escaped from the flames."

Mr. Kohn also described an incident in which the group captured a factory owner alleged to have worked many Jews to death. They buried him alive in a bunker, and then camped outside for 11 or 12 days to ensure he died a slow death.

It was war, and partisans like Mr. Riwash and Mr. Kohn made no bones about it. They did what was necessary to help their Soviet Red Army commanders or secret-police advisers defeat the Nazis.

But now, well into their 80s and suffering poor health, the two Jewish men have been caught up in a war of another kind, one that pits two of Canada's biggest ethnic communities against each other.

The Ukrainian Civil Liberties Association is demanding an investigation into whether Mr. Riwash, Mr. Kohn and other Soviet collaborators lied about their wartime conduct to get into Canada.

The group wants Canadian authorities to treat them the same way they've dealt with a long line of alleged Nazi collaborators -- by asking the courts to strip them of their citizenship and deport them. Last fall, it sent a letter to the RCMP urging that Mr. Kohn, Mr. Riwash and two others be investigated for war crimes.

But this has put the Ukrainian association on a collision course with the Canadian Jewish Congress, which views its campaign as tantamount to anti-Semitism.

A guerrilla war between the Ukrainian and Jewish communities heated up in the mid-1980s, when each made strong representations to a war-crimes commission headed by Mr. Justice Jules Desch�nes. Instead of deportation actions, the million-strong Ukrainian-Canadian community lobbied for full war-crimes prosecutions to take place in Canada under strict rules of evidence.

Jewish groups -- representing about 600,000 Canadians -- were generally in favour of domestic prosecutions, but willing to support a process that would see suspects stripped of their citizenship and deported.

The denaturalization and deportation program began in 1994, after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that evidence of Second World War crimes was too weak to support criminal prosecutions in Canada.

The government declared anyone belonging to a group appearing on a postwar exclusion list must have lied to immigration officials to gain entry. They would lose their citizenship, and be deported. Nazi collaborators, common criminals, Mafia members and Trotskyites were on the list. So were Communists, and those who had operated on behalf of Russian police.

Ottawa ultimately put a concerted effort into 26 cases involving suspected Nazi war criminals.

But the federal war-crimes policy has angered some Eastern Europeans. They say it targeted members of their communities who, they argue, were conscripted into playing minor roles in the Nazi Holocaust. At the same time, they complain, the war-crimes unit has ignored a Stalinist slaughter that cost many millions of Eastern Europeans their lives.

"You can't suddenly say that we are going to look at this group but not this group," said Lubomyr Luciuk, research director for the Ukrainian association. "Fools deny that there were collaborators on one side, but no collaborators on the other. There were collaborators in every single European country and in every group -- some more voluntary than others."

Bernie Farber, executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, objects to the campaign. "What Lubomyr Luciuk and others are doing is trying to take the focus away from the incredible tragedy of the Jews."

The real aim of the Ukrainian campaign can only be to harm Jewish efforts to bring Nazi war criminals and collaborators to justice, and to "invite divisions between communities," Mr. Farber said in an interview.

"I think this is done for a very specific agenda -- because of the fact that the list of Nazi enablers contains a significant number of Eastern Europeans on it. But you can't erase history. If that's what happened, that is what happened."

He said critics in the Ukrainian community appear to resent Jewish success in the hunt for Nazi war criminals.

Mr. Luciuk said it is a complete coincidence that the four individuals who have been targeted for attention are Jewish. "It's not my fault that the four people who opened their mouths and bragged in the press, in books, happen to be of Jewish heritage."

The issue is complicated by the fact that the Soviets were allies of Canada in the fight against Nazi Germany, but experts say Canada's war-crimes effort was never intended to be a one-way street.

William Fenrick, a Canadian working for the United Nations war-crimes commission in former Yugoslavia, said that unlike countries such as Australia -- which target war criminals only from enemy regimes -- Canadian war-crimes policy was intended to apply to any alleged war criminal, friend or foe.

"If these people have committed war crimes, there is no reason I can think of that they shouldn't be treated exactly the same way as the others were," Mr. Fenrick said of the alleged Soviet war criminals.

Peter Hargadon, a lawyer who spent two years working with the Desch�nes Commission, agreed. He said that while the inquiry was undeniably inspired by strong lobbying from the Jewish community the war-crimes effort should not be restricted to Nazi war criminals.

In a letter to the Ukrainian Civil Liberties Association in 2000, Terry Beitner, director of the war-crimes unit, said an individual is considered complicit in war crimes or crimes against humanity if he "contributes, directly or indirectly" to an offence or belonged to an organization during a time when it carried out atrocities.

Mr. Beitner said the war-crimes unit faces a perennial difficulty in reconstructing what immigrants were asked -- or not asked -- during long-ago screening sessions. Most written records have long since disappeared, and screening officers at each checkpoint didn't necessarily ask the specific questions they were supposed to.

Of the 26 alleged Nazi collaborators targeted by the war-crimes unit, a handful have been deported or left Canada voluntarily. Several more were found to have probably lied to gain entry but, for reasons that are unclear, their deportations remain stalled at the cabinet level. Several others died during court proceedings, and three cases were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Yet, there are no comparable cases involving Soviet collaborators. Mr. Luciuk insists that the imbalance shows that a succession of "small fry" were pursued to satisfy Jewish groups who portrayed Canada in the 1980s as a haven for Nazi war criminals.

However, Mr. Farber said the very notion of "small fry" is contemptible when it comes to mass murder. "I'm not saying they pulled the trigger, but everybody who was involved was a member of a Nazi killing unit."

It is necessary to consider the history of the war-torn region to understand the racially sensitive undertones to the entire debate.

When the Russians began to roll across German occupying forces in Eastern Europe toward the end of the Second World War, many Ukrainians had serious doubts about their liberators.

Before the war, millions of Ukrainians had perished as a result of Stalin's forced collectivization policy. Hundreds of thousands more were executed or exiled to Siberian gulags, and stories of torture were abundant. As the war raged, some Ukrainians were not sure which occupier was worse -- the Nazis or the Soviets troops.

However, Jews tended to see things in a different light. With their race being systematically wiped off by the Nazis, any Ukrainian who collaborated with the Germans was considered an enemy.

Jewish survivors have repeatedly stressed the role of Ukrainians who acted as policemen and concentration camp guards, often portraying Ukrainians as anti-Semitic by nature, historian Orest Subtelny told a 1986 Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies symposium.

In this light, Mr. Riwash's stint with the Red Army secret police force -- the NKVD -- takes on a different hue. In his memoir, Mr. Riwash said that he was well aware of the fear his force created.

"The mere approach of a uniformed man wearing the blue cap of the NKVD was enough to reduce even the most unworried civilian to a state of panic."

Mr. Riwash also hinted at the tangled welter of oppression, revenge and rivalries that prevailed at the time in the Ukraine region.

Besides Mr. Riwash and Mr. Kohn, the Ukrainian association has also targeted Israel Roitman, an alleged Red Army collaborator, and Nadia Otsep -- an 84-year-old Montreal woman who was attached to the Soviet Red Army when it drove the Germans out of Ukraine.

In their memoirs or in media interviews, all four have admitted being associated with violent acts carried out by the Soviets.

Mr. Roitman's admission came in an article he wrote several years ago in a Russian-Canadian periodical -- Our View. He described the savage beating of a captured Ukrainian insurgent who was later executed.

Ms. Otsep spoke of her role in the war to Montreal's The Gazette. She said that as a doctor attached to the SMERSH secret police, her unit followed behind the Red Army infantry as it advanced through Ukraine in 1943. It was her grisly task to jump into graves that unwilling conscripts had been forced to dig for themselves, to ascertain that those inside were dead.

Now a stooped, silver-haired immigrant living in a modest senior citizens' home in Montreal, Ms. Otsep, 84, told The Globe and Mail through an interpreter: "I had to do it," she said. "There was a rule. You had to go into the army."

Mr. Beitner said the war-crimes unit typically conducts a full review of all serious cases. If it finds enough evidence to embark on the denaturalization and deportation process, it sends a recommendation to that effect to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.

While he stressed that he cannot discuss individual cases, Mr. Beitner said it is reasonable to assume that if no legal proceedings were launched, there was probably insufficient evidence.

Mr. Luciuk said the Ukrainian demands are modest. "We do not make the claim there are thousands of former NKVD or KGB or SMERSH people in Canada. We have no idea how many there are. But there are at least four people who have, in their own writings or public statements, indicated they were members of NKVD, KGB or SMERSH."

But Mr. Farber warned that making a case for deportation is more difficult than it looks: "A person can damn themselves with their own words, but it still requires evidence. I can tell you that of the many cases we have reported, many were not borne out because there wasn't the evidence."

Still, Mr. Luciuk argued that it is inconceivable that not one case has gone ahead involving a Soviet war-crimes collaborator.

Meanwhile, at Mr. Riwash's home, his nephew and legal guardian -- Major Mark Zoledowski -- said his uncle deserves much better than to be persecuted in his old age. "He actually brought many people to justice," he said, proffering photographs of Mr. Riwash with Prime Minister Paul Martin and former prime minister Jean Chr�tien.

"He was recognized for these accomplishments by the state of Israel," Major Zoledowski added. "In the Holocaust museum, they have a space devoted to him."

Mr. Kohn, 86, and his wife, Anna, are living in a Spartan flat a few blocks away. After immigrating to Canada in 1976, Mr. Kohn worked as a watchmaker until he retired in 1994. Mrs. Kohn agreed to speak on behalf of her husband, who she said was unwell.

The Russians were not as bad as many believe they were -- and the partisans who helped them out were fighting "for freedom for humanity," Mrs. Kohn said.

"They should treat him better because of what he did for humanity. The partisans didn't go to kill people; they served them. Do you think it was a pleasure to live in the woods?

[W.Z. In 1985 Joseph Riwash supplied 707 names to the Deschenes Commission as supposed Nazi war criminals. In my Critique of the Deschenes Commission, I wrote:
In reading through these cases one is often struck by the frivolous, mischievous and even malicious nature of these denunciations. Perhaps one could expect a few such denunciations from mentally deranged individuals, but certainly this should not be acceptable from organizations who claim themselves to be respectable and objective such as Yad Vashem, the Simon Wiesenthal Centers at Vienna and Los Angeles, the Canadian Jewish Congress and B'nai Brith Canada. It indicates that these individuals are run by individuals who have completely lost their objectivity and are living in a world of paranoid fantasy --- creating war criminals to satisfy their psychological needs.
Mr. Riwash continues to defame Ukainians with complete impunity.]