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In late September, members of the Canadian House of Commons were thrust into the international spotlight for something seemingly mundane—offering a standing ovation to 98-year-old Ukrainian Canadian Yaroslav Hunka, touted by the assembly’s speaker as a war hero who fought against invading Russian forces in World War II. But as commentators soon pointed out, Hunka’s fight against the Russians during the war was as a Nazi collaborator and member of the Waffen-SS 1st Galician Division.
The moment was intended to honor Ukrainian resistance, linking past and present. Instead, it highlighted the deep and enduring shame of postwar North American Nazi immigration and our tendency toward selective historical amnesia in confronting it. And it isn’t only Canada where this has been an issue.
Canada and the United States allowed and even encouraged the immigration of Nazi collaborators and Holocaust perpetrators in the years following the war. If the public remembers this history, it is likely through the frame of fictional “Nazi hunting” narratives, like those featured in the Indiana Jones movies or the Amazon Prime show Hunters. Or perhaps we take note when a former Nazi makes the news, as in the case of former Cleveland resident and concentration camp guard Ivan “John” Demjanjuk.
But these narratives obscure the more typical stories of Nazis in North America, especially in the U.S. Our popular memory has downplayed the welcome offered to Nazi immigrants after the war, which is how Americans, like Canadians, have repeatedly blithely celebrated men from units accused of contributing to atrocities.
The most well-known instance of Nazi collaborators immigrating to the U.S. was through Operation Paperclip, in which some 1,600 Nazi scientists and engineers were employed by the U.S. government and given residence and citizenship in the ensuing years. German scientist and pioneer of space flight Wernher Von Braun was notably recruited through this program. His contributions to the U.S. space program have been celebrated; Huntsville, Ala., has both a day (Feb. 24) and a 9,000-seat arena named after him. Yet the work that earned him the reputation that enabled his immigration to the U.S. was indefensible. Von Braun contributed to the use of brutal and enslaved labor in the Mittelwerk rocket engineering complex during his time as a Nazi.
Various CIA operations also made use of former collaborators from the Soviet bloc, some of whom the CIA actively assisted throughout the immigration process to bypass screening restrictions. These policies were undertaken explicitly for the purpose of Cold War technological competition and intelligence gathering. Defeating the Soviet Union—a U.S. ally during the war—now involved embracing those who had recently fought for their most abhorrent enemy.
Such high profile and geopolitically strategic instances were not the most common method of immigration for Nazi collaborators, however. Near the end of the war, as Allied armies regained ground and began camp liberations, collaborators fled their posts in droves to avoid the violent reprisal that awaited them upon capture. This was particularly true for Eastern European collaborators, whose roles spanned from pogrom participation to auxiliary policing and SS membership. They could blend in among those displaced by the war more easily than Germans and Austrians, and then concoct plausible back stories that did not implicate them for their contributions to the Nazi cause. Those who made it to U.S. and British-administered Allied zones found that if they voiced fear of political retribution for anti-Soviet views, they could become eligible for emigration.
Although the U.S. had restrictive immigration policies in this era, new postwar exceptions were made to help address the refugee crisis in Europe. These policies were influenced by deepening Cold War political tensions and national security concerns around communist infiltration.
For displaced people (“DPs”) originally from Soviet-bloc countries, it was beneficial to play up anti-communist political views. Postwar immigration laws like the 1948 DP Act and its 1952 amendment included provisions that favored DPs from Soviet-annexed countries, such as the Baltic states. This served a Cold War purpose—showing that the US was offering freedom to people fleeing communist oppression. Yet many came from regions where violent Nazi collaboration was common.
Screening policies should have excluded former Nazis and collaborators, along with anyone else they believed had committed acts of “moral turpitude.” However, as long as the U.S. did not have what Senator Pat McCarran called “positive proof” of a person’s moral failings, they could not confirm that an applicant was unfit for immigration. Because of deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union, immigration officials lacked access to Soviet-held documentation (the “positive proof”) that would have allowed them to root out former collaborators. Officials also lacked necessary training to determine past Nazi collaboration and were often more concerned with detecting potential communist sympathies than they were with potential ties to Nazism.
The U.S. ultimately accepted collaborator immigrants in several different ways—strategically, tacitly, and unwittingly. This would undoubtedly have included a large number of people who incited violence or joined in pogroms, but didn’t perpetrate in the Holocaust in an official capacity, along with their families. Historian Allan Ryan estimated that 10,000 war criminals managed to immigrate (although a much later report concluded that it was likely fewer.) Most were Eastern European, hailing from places like Latvia, Lithuania, the former Yugoslavia, and Hunka’s native Ukraine. Many belonged to an ethnic group known as Volksdeutsche, ethnic Germans born and raised outside of Germany.
In the 70 years since, the U.S. government has recognized the harms of its approach, and sought to right some of its wrongs. Under mounting political pressure by Jewish American groups and their allies in the 1970s, including New York Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, the Department of Justice opened an Office of Special Investigations (OSI) in 1979 with the express purpose of tracking down and prosecuting Nazi collaborators.
But the most the U.S. was ever able to charge perpetrators with was immigration fraud via participation in war crimes—not the war crimes themselves. This could lead to deportation, though it often did not. Only 21 were forcibly removed from the U.S. while another 40 left voluntarily to the country of their choice, and few faced any form of criminal prosecution abroad. Most of those prosecuted by the OSI had their naturalization revoked, but simply lived out the rest of their lives in the U.S., where most are now buried.
In her 2006 DOJ-produced history of the OSI, historian Judith Feigin wrote that the government’s work served as a “permanent and irrefutable response to those who would deny the Holocaust and its horrors.”
The OSI brought attention to the history of Nazi immigration and attempted to ameliorate some of its effects. But decades later we must ask: was this effort to address the sins of the past sufficient, if collaborators are still routinely celebrated—accidentally or otherwise?
The recent incident in the Canadian House of Commons is a reminder that the past is still very much alive—even if it is aging—and we must come to terms with the events that caused it, not simply move on. Poland is now considering the extradition of Yaroslav Hunka from Canada for his unit’s collaboration with various WWII anti-partisan efforts and pogroms, and a $30,000 endowment at the University of Alberta in his name has been closed. Canadian House of Commons speaker Anthony Rota, who praised Hunka in his remarks, has resigned.
But this incident begs us across North America to recognize how a tendency to score geopolitical points without consideration of context can cause ongoing harms.
Claire E. Aubin is an incoming lecturer in history at the University of California – Davis, and faculty member in holocaust and genocide studies at Gratz College. She is completing a book titled The Homeland: Holocaust Perpetrators as Immigrants to Post-WWII America. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.