A kids' book with meat explores strained relations between Jews and Ukrainians

Ottawa Citizen | Saturday, November 17, 2001 | Paul Gessell

Once upon a time, there were the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. These young sleuths got to solve neat mysteries and have loads of fun without ever drawing a gun or getting horizontal with the opposite sex.

And unlike Kat Baliuk, the teenaged heroine of the new young adult novel Hope's War, Nancy and the Boys didn't have to solve the mystery of their grandfather's past. They didn't see their lives fall apart because of a federal law that can deport lovable old grandfathers unjustly accused of being Nazi war criminals. Nor did they become ensnared in bitter relations between Canada's Jewish and Ukrainian communities.

Hope's War (Dundurn Press) was written by Marsha Skrypuch, a Brantford, Ont. author of Ukrainian heritage. To write it, she received some financial help from the Ukrainian Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko, but says her book is based on facts, not on ethnic loyalties or ethnic hatred.

Hope's War is Skrypuch's fifth book for children. Like her latest, one other was aimed at teens. The rest were picture books for a younger crowd. Skrypuch's topics have included the Armenian massacre, the internment of Ukrainian-Canadians during the First World War and Stalinist repression. Not exactly Hardy Boys material, but as the 46-year-old Skrypuch says, she doesn't do stories about boys' skateboard adventures.

Besides, she says, adults often underestimate children. Kids are often brighter than adults and can handle difficult topics in fiction. Skrypuch loves being around teenagers, she says, and often goes to schools doing readings from her books. Last week, she was in Ottawa reading from Hope's War to a group of Ukrainian students.

"I don't go for this thing that because someone is a certain age, they don't understand things," she says.

There is a lot to understand in Hope's War, in which young Kat's grandfather is accused by the federal government of failing to tell immigration authorities when he came to Canada that he had served as an auxiliary police officer to the Nazi occupiers of his Ukrainian homeland during the Second World War.

Under federal law, people who lie about their wartime activities at the time of their immigration can be denaturalized and deported, even if there is no proof they actually committed any war crimes. Because the government destroyed old immigration records, the courts do not even have to prove someone lied, just that he probably lied.

Kat's grandfather faces such a trial, but not before being branded a war criminal in the news media and facing harassment from a persistent protester outside his home. The protester turns out to be an elderly Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. The tensions between Jews and Ukrainians is a recurring subplot of the book. In the end, the grandfather is ordered deported. We are left to speculate about the future of the old man and his wounded family.

In real life, according to Skrypuch, he would not be deported but just left to live out his days, broke and reviled in Canada. That, at least, is the record so far, she says.

In the back of the book, there is an author's note pointing out the cases of three real individuals who were ordered deported in the past few years but remain in Canada. The three are Helmut Oberlander of Waterloo, Ont., Wasyl Odynsky of Toronto and Vladimir Katriuk from the Montreal area. A fourth man, Serge Kisluk of St. Catharines, Ont. was also ordered deported but died before action was taken.

"People aren't deported," says Skrypuch. "They die." The government, she claims, holds the deportation hearings to placate those demanding alleged war criminals be brought to justice. But the government, she adds, is unwilling to enact the deportation orders because of the lack of compelling evidence the accused actually committed war crimes.

Judges trying some of these cases have publicly said they believe the accused lied to immigration authorities about their wartime activities but have cast doubt on accusations they are war criminals.

For example, Mr. Justice W. Andrew MacKay of the Federal Court of Canada ruled last March that the government had the right to deport Odynsky, a Ukrainian immigrant who apparently tried to hide his role as a guard at Nazi forced labour camps. But the judge had a caveat.

"There is no doubt that Mr. Odynsky's service at Trawinki and Poniatowa (labour camps in Poland) and even with SS Battalion Streibel, was not voluntary. He believes he would have been shot if captured after leaving and that he would have put his family in jeopardy."

And the judge added: "There was no evidence at trial that Mr. Odynsky participated personally in any incident involving the mistreatment of prisoners or of any other person during his service with the SS guard units." Skrypuch puts similar words into the mouth of the fictional judge who tries Kat's grandfather, a man who claimed to have been a Nazi "infiltrator" rather than a "collaborator," and who did nothing worse than order Jewish prisoners to do pushups.

In Hope's War, Sol Littman, the real-life Nazi hunter, a Jew and a former head of the Toronto branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, is labeled as the culprit who unleashed the process that has resulted in innocent men being branded Nazi war criminals. Kat's parents explain that Littman's assertion in the 1980s that 774 Nazi war criminals were living in Canada was wildly inaccurate, that half of the names on that list were people who had never even set foot in Canada, yet the list was the impetus for the establishment in 1985 for the Deschenes Commission into War Criminals.

"'It (the list) was made up by the self-styled Nazi hunter, Sol Littman,' explained her father. "'And, in fact, the whole commission was set up in response to his false accusations.'"

In the book, Kat's grandfather is harassed and dogged by an elderly Jewish woman protester. In a chance encounter on the street, the old woman tells Kat her grandfather is a war criminal.

"'They were all like that,' said the woman. 'They are all war criminals.' 'Do you mean to tell me that you think every single Ukrainian auxiliary policeman was a war criminal?' asked Kat. 'Every one,' replied the woman emphatically. 'You and your family should kneel down and pray. Pray for forgiveness until your knees bleed.' Kat was taken aback by the hate in the woman's voice. Kat could think of nothing to say. She turned from the woman and walked back to the courthouse."

The old Jewish woman and Kat's family eventually make peace with one another. In real life, disputes between Jewish-Canadians and Ukrainian-Canadians do not always end so happily.

On the day of the Odynsky ruling, David Matas, senior legal counsel for the Jewish human rights organization, B'nai B'rith Canada, urged the government to strip the ethnic Ukrainian man of his Canadian citizenship.

"There has been a lot of tension," Skrypuch says. And, she adds: "On this issue, there has not been much talk."

Skrypuch says she showed her manuscript to some writer friends who are Jewish. "There are frustrations on their part, too; and there are prejudices in their communities."

Both the Nazis and the Soviet communists turned the Ukrainians and the Jews against one another in Ukraine during the Second World War, says Skrypuch. Here is how Kat's grandfather puts it: "There was much distrust between Jews and Ukrainians when the Germans first arrived. Ukrainians associated Jews with the communists and Jews associated Ukrainians with the Nazis. We were both wrong."

Skrypuch notes the Nazis killed five million Slavs, including many Ukrainians. Accusing Ukrainians of being war criminals is a "double slap," she says. "It says the people who are the victims are the perpetrators."

The author says she has no agenda with this book although she would be happy if the government changed its law about deporting people like Kat's grandfather and stopped accepting evidence gathered by the old Soviet KGB. At the back of the book there are several Web sites listed as "teachers' resources" to educate students about war crimes issues. Most of the sites recount history from the Ukrainian point of view.

Skrypuch says she tackled the issues in Hope's War because she is attracted to stories where people are falsely labeled and are victims of prejudice. An important subplot of Hope's War involves the prejudice experienced by a teenage boy who chooses to dress in Gothic clothes.

Skrypuch's own grandfather, who came to Canada from Ukraine in 1912, was labeled an "enemy alien" and interned along with many other Ukrainian-Canadians during the First World War. As a child, Skrypuch was labeled "stupid" because she didn't learn to read until she was nine. Her mother was labeled a "whore" because she was divorced. And Ukrainian-Canadians are being labeled war criminals.

"They're damning a whole ethnic group."

Copyright 2001�The Ottawa Citizen