Photo on Jan Jürgen (John) Petersen's April 3, 1951, German passport, which was taken in anticipation of immigrating to Canada.

Photo on Jan Jürgen (John) Petersen’s April 3, 1951, German passport, which was taken in anticipation of immigrating to Canada.

The hate-fueled genocide of the Holocaust is such a fundamental event in the annals of civilization that people connected to the Nazi perpetrators are often automatically deemed guilty by association. But if you scratch the surface of the situations of people with such connections, you are quickly confronted with complexity of one or both of two types. First, the enormous coercive power exercised by the Nazis to bend people to their will and to enforce compliance with their evil ends. Second, the multiplicity of circumstances at numerous locations across Nazi-controlled Europe.

The debacle in Canada’s Parliament on Sept. 22, 2023, when Yaroslav Hunka was recognized by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Anthony Rota, as a Ukrainian and Canadian “hero” and received two standing ovations before it became known that Hunka had served as a teenager with the Nazi Waffen-SS Galicia Division is an illustration of this guilt by association and the frequent complexity of such situations.[1]

The SS was declared a criminal organization by the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1945 and 1946.[2] The Galicia Division has been accused of war crimes. A large but uncertain number of its members came to Canada in the 1950s. Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre maintains “the unit’s history has been reconstructed to erase or minimize links to the Nazis.”[3] Yet, the 1986 report of the Deschênes Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada stated that mere membership in the Galicia Division is insufficient to justify prosecution.[4]

This tangled web allowed Irwin Cotler, former Canadian Justice Minister and Attorney General, in a lengthy Oct. 1, 2023 interview with CBC Radio, to call Hunka “a Nazi war criminal” and to later stress in the same interview that for action to be taken against him it would have to be demonstrated that he was knowingly a part of a criminal group that participated in war crimes.[5]

During the interview, Cotler also emphasized “astonishing” revelations made by the Deschênes Commission. For example, in the aftermath of the Second World War a “cabinet committee … quashed Orders-in-Council to deport Nazis from Canada at the same time as it adopted Orders-in-Council to keep Jews out.” Cotler said Canada has “a shameful track record” and he joined many others in calling for an end to “the ongoing impunity” by releasing the redacted second part of the Deschênes Commission report,[6] which concerned allegations against specific individuals.[7]

I would like to know if Jan Jürgen (John) Petersen was one of the people against whom allegations had been made. Earlier this year, I published a biography about him, A Snake on the Heart: History, Mystery, and Truth – The Entangled Journeys of a Biographer and His Nazi Subject (Iguana Books).

John was a member of the Dutch SS who, after coming to Canada in July 1952, became a British Columbia foster parent and social worker. Like his younger brother, Constant, John was a policeman with the SD (Sicherheitsdienst), the SS’s Security and Intelligence Service. Both were imprisoned as Nazi collaborators after the war, as was their younger half-brother, Wim Kempen, who managed a sheep farm in Ukraine for the Germans for part of 1943. The three brothers had a Dutch mother, but John and Constant, who had lived on Dutch territory all their lives (with the exception of John’s first ten months in British North Borneo), were German by virtue of their father, who died in 1918, being German; Wim’s father was Dutch. These familial complexities only deepen when they intertwine with those of the five-year Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Although Wim became a “supporting” member of the SS in early 1944, he likely did this to obtain a measure of protection from other pro-Nazi elements;[8] he went into hiding in December 1944.[9]

Another element of this complexity is Barend van Leeuwen, who was a friend of the three brothers’ family. Van Leeuwen not only hid two Jews in late 1942 and 1943, he also distributed food to other Jews in hiding. Wim helped him do this.[10] Wim also married Van Leeuwen’s daughter in 1944. Meanwhile, John and Constant, in their roles as SD policemen, had been involved in the roundup of the Jews in 1942 and 1943, John in The Hague, Constant in Rotterdam. Constant admitted this in all five of the statements he gave to the Dutch authorities while he was imprisoned as a collaborator. “I had to choose either to take part in the raids on Rotterdam or serve at the front,” he said in his statement of November 26, 1946. “I chose the latter because I did not agree with those raids.”[11] This decision meant leaving his wife, who was seven-months pregnant, and their eighteen-month-old son, as well as putting himself in much greater danger than if he had remained in Rotterdam. He was sent to the Russian front where he was badly wounded.

When John told me his story in 1976, he admitted to being in the Dutch SS but not to participating in the Holocaust. I only discerned this fact several decades after his death in 1988. The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. It was because of this past and his fear of being identified and prosecuted as a war criminal that he said he never left Canada after he was let in. This claim was not precisely true; he did travel to the Seattle area for social work training, circa 1964. On the other side of the ledger, there is this, written by Van Leeuwen in a letter of June 17, 1951: “I experienced that Mr. Jan Jürgen Petersen as a S.S. man has taken our side totally during the war. He knew we had Jewish people with us at home, and where others were, he helped us in our work, when possible, he also knew where most of the Jewish furniture was stored.”

The Nazis brought multiple means to bear to support their priority of annihilating the Jews, which was arguably even more important than winning the war. This sounds ridiculous, but the Nazi ideology was based on hatred of the Jews and an alleged Jewish international conspiracy, notions which themselves, in retrospect and notwithstanding the widespread antisemitism of the time, are ridiculous. In late 1940, when government departments, educational institutions and local authorities in the Netherlands were directed to dismiss their 2,000 Jewish staff members, the related Nazi decree was based on the “action of world Jewry against the occupying authorities.”[12] If world Jewry was so powerful, surely it would have intervened to prevent the Holocaust, surely it would have been able to mobilize more countries than just Denmark to take significant actions to protect their Jewish citizens. When hatred makes the ridiculous plausible, evil triumphs.

During the roundup and deportation of the Jews in the Netherlands, food was used to support the process. Due to a large workload and limited staff, traffic police and detectives could work overtime escorting Jews to the Westerbork concentration and transit camp in the northeast of the country; it was the last stop before the extermination camps in the east. “It was very worthwhile to take on those extra duties, not only because of the money, but also because on return to the station in Utrecht you were given a bag with well-filled sandwiches,” observed one man who volunteered for the duty. “All of that at a time when anything was very useful and when food had become scarce.”[13] The people taking advantage of these “opportunities” were engaged in what Hannah Arendt termed “the banality of evil,” meaning, in the words of philosopher Judith Butler, “the way in which the crime had become for the criminals accepted, routinised, and implemented without moral revulsion and political indignation and resistance.”[14]

While winning compliance through soft measures like overtime and food was one approach in prosecuting the war and the Holocaust, the Nazis’ hard measures were a truer reflection of their attitude of “for us or against us,” which applied to the general population as well as to their enemies. If German soldiers were ambushed or killed or one of their officers was assassinated, and the Germans could not find those responsible, they would execute ten or so randomly selected men from the street or town in question or arrest all the men and deport them to labor camps in Germany. This reflected Hitler’s policy “to retaliate like for like or worse.”[15] Moreover, innocent citizens were held as hostages to deter attempts to kill Nazis. If such attempts occurred, hostages would be murdered in reprisal. When Hanns Albin Rauter, the head of the SS in the Netherlands, was almost killed in a resistance attack in March 1945, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, ordered the execution of 500 people.[16] The same retribution philosophy prevailed at Westerbork where a standing order required that ten “residents” be added to the next available transport to the east for every one that escaped.[17]

Hard measures were also applied against the police and non-compliant members of the SS. According to German historian Gerhard Hirschfeld, “From July 1942 officers who had been guilty of an ‘offence’ against the occupying power, or had refused to undertake a task assigned to them, had to answer for their conduct before a special German SS and police court. This fact alone throws revealing light onto the extremely precarious situation of the Dutch police.” Another historian, N.K.C.A. in ‘t Veld, adds that many Dutch police “paid for their resistance to the Germans in front of a firing squad or by perishing in concentration camps.”[18] Despite these dangers, there are examples of police warning “potential victims of forthcoming raids,” turning “a blind eye to forged or invalid documents” and generally dragging their feet during raids to roundup Jews.[19] John claimed he did some of these things, and there is one instance where I tend to believe him, but we must err on the side of skepticism given his extensive history of telling tall tales.

There is little doubt that John was a Nazi—for a time. When he and Constant returned to the Netherlands at the end of 1940 following their six months of SS training in Germany, he was confident Germany would win the war. He told me Hitler was creating a broader confederation based on the idea of brotherhood and that he saw a “home for himself” in that confederation.[20] But soon after, when he started to feel pressure to join the Waffen-SS, he apparently began to see some things differently. That August he made a mysterious return on a part-time basis to the insurance industry where he had previously worked. There is a good chance this was a covert assignment to work as a spy and informer. At the start of 1943, he further diversified his activities by joining the Schutzgruppe, a semi-military organization attached to the German army. He explained later that he played a “double game” in which he pitted the German authorities—the SS and the Schutzgruppe—against each other. He was also linked to the resistance through Van Leeuwen and another friend.

Notwithstanding this evolution of his attitude and actions, John continued to admire Hitler. Such hero worship was not unusual in the 1930s when, according to British historian Sir Ian Kershaw, Hitler was “arguably the most popular head of state in the world.”[21] But, in 1976, John still did not want to believe that Hitler knew about the Holocaust; others, in his view, were responsible for that. If Hitler were involved, it was only because he went “berserk during the war,” he told me.[22]

John lived wide swathes of his life in denial; he wore a shroud of falseness. Although he presented as an affable and charming man, known for his warmth and gentleness, a few who knew him best understood that his other core characteristics—his manipulativeness and mendacity—had at least as much impact on people as his positive attributes. He was given opportunities on two occasions during his adult life to face up to his duplicity; he retreated both times.

There are multiple issues wrapped up in the Rota-Hunka House of Commons debacle. By bringing attention to John Petersen—a Canadian, like Hunka, who arrived in the 1950s with an SS past—I’ve emphasized the complexity of circumstances that can accompany SS service. Yaroslav Hunka does not appear to have been a war criminal based on what has so far been published about his service in the SS, unless that service itself is the deciding factor.[23] Petersen was a war criminal based on his participation in the Holocaust when he held the SS rank of Unterscharführer (junior squad leader). His fear of leaving Canada demonstrates his recognition of this fact. That Hunka was saluted as a Ukrainian and Canadian hero, a status that was tied to his then unknown SS service, remains a mortifying mistake.

So, how did Petersen gain entry to Canada? Probably quite easily if my intuition is correct. But I could be wrong. According to Cotler, the United Kingdom government, in 1948, “called upon Commonwealth countries—and I quote—’the time had come to bury the past’ and not to proceed to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, in part, due to changed geopolitics,” i.e., anticommunism and the newly-emergent Cold War. In 1950, the Canadian government liberalized immigration policy and established the Department of Citizenship and Immigration.  Soon after, “the government took German immigrants off the enemy-alien list…. As a result, Germans joined swelling numbers of Italians [who’d been removed from the enemy-alien list in 1947] in applying for admission to Canada.”  This is what enabled Petersen and his family to come to Canada in 1952, albeit on their second try. Their initial attempt a year earlier was thwarted when John’s son, Hans, contracted contagious ringworm, which was evident on his face.[24]

Perhaps due to paranoia, which Petersen admitted to having in the late 1940s, he apparently conflated this delay into a baffling mystery that victimized him. He also told me that the Canadian government investigated him for two years before permitting him to enter the country, a claim for which I have found no evidence.[25] But, again, I may be wrong. Was the truth about his wartime past known and suppressed by Ottawa since his arrival here or sometime after that? This question is one reason why I’d like to see the redacted portions of the Deschênes Commission report released.

Just as Petersen’s denial and fallacious reinventions of his past were not in his best interests, so the United Kingdom’s advice to “bury the past” does not appear to have served Canada well. It has repressed and devalued the truth. This does not help our efforts to counter rising antisemitism or the persecution of minorities around the world.

In the aftermath of the Rota-Hunka debacle, Canada’s Immigration Minister Marc Miller said, “Canada has a really dark history with Nazis in Canada.” That history includes a time when it was easier to enter Canada “as a Nazi than it was as a Jewish person,” he added. “I think that’s a history we have to reconcile.”[26]

As Canadians have been learning from the evolving examples of truth and reconciliation in South Africa and with First Nations in Canada, reconciliation requires truth, meaning action on finding it and a firm commitment to maintaining it. The truth concerning war criminals in Canada must be revealed.

An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia. His biography of Jan Jürgen (John) Petersen, A Snake on the Heart: History, Mystery, and Truth – The Entangled Journeys of a Biographer and His Nazi Subject, was published in March 2023.

  1. “Yaroslav Hunka,” Wikipedia – accessed 23-09-29.
  2. Sarah Ritchie (Canadian Press), “Rideau Hall apologies for honouring Nazi veteran with Order of Canada,” Times Colonist, Thursday, October 5, 2023, A5.
  3. Greg Mercer and Marie Woolf, “Hunka said in essay that he enlisted in Nazi unit to protect homeland,” The Globe and Mail, Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, A4 (“some Ukrainian soldiers linked to the division were accused of war crimes”; “the division’s involvement in war crimes is still disputed”; from “several hundred” to “as many as 2,000” came to Canada; they were screened before coming to Canada; Efraim Zuroff quote). Morgan Lowrie (Canadian Press), “Group defends Ukrainian who fought for Nazis,” Times Colonist, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, A12 (professor maintains “some Galician units did participate in war crimes”; another professor says the Galician Division’s actions “have been ‘whitewashed’ in Canada”; there were about 600 members of the Division in Canada at the time of the 1985-86 Deschênes Commission.)
  4. CTV National News (Reporter Heather Wright), “Will Hunka be extradited?” (length 2:13 minutes) (1:20).
  5. Irwin Cotler reflects on Canada’s past treatment of Nazis,” interview with CBC Radio’s The Sunday Magazine, October 1, 2023. (1:15 and 14:40)
  6. Cotler interview with CBC Radio, Oct. 1, 2023 – 1:28 (impunity), 1:48 (quashed), 2:55 (astonishing), 20:30 (shameful), 3:00 and 5:15 and 9:15 (release redacted second part of report).
  7. “Deschênes Commission,” Wikipedia – accessed 2023-09-29.
  8. Patrick Wolfe, A Snake on the Heart: History, Mystery, and Truth – The Entangled Journeys of a Biographer and His Nazi Subject, Iguana Books, March 2023, xxiii, 174, 241.
  9. Ibid., 207, 263, 307.
  10. Ibid., 141.
  11. Ibid., 194.
  12. Ibid., 164. In Frank van Riet’s The Jewish Guards: Supervision i8n the Dutch Gateway to Hell (Nedvision Publishing, 2022), we are told (133, 134): In a letter of March 15, 1943, Major Ynto de Boer, the acting Regional Police President for the provinces of Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe, stated that all Jews in the region had to be transported to the Westerbork concentration and transit camp in Drenthe province and that this was “the result of the decision of the Führer to put an end in Europe to the danger posed by those of the Jewish Religion, who, by means of capital, by means of Bolshevism and other underground political powers, tries to achieve world domination.” They are to be “transferred to Poland, where a large region is reserved for them.” “In reality, no Jew who does not resist is hurt at all.”
  13. Wolfe, 224.
  14. Judith Butler, “Hannah Arendt’s challenge to Adolf Eichmann,” The Guardian, August 29, 2011 –
  15. Wolfe, 156-7.
  16. Ibid., 296-7.
  17. Frank van Riet, The Jewish Guards: Supervision in the Dutch Gateway to Hell, Assen, Netherlands, Nedvision Publishing, 2022, 95.
  18. Wolfe, 197.
  19. Ibid., 196-7.
  20. Ibid., 170.
  21. Ibid., 36.
  22. Ibid., 39-40.
  23. Like John Petersen, Hunka admitted to being in the SS. Hunka even wrote about it publicly, circa 2011, for an American online magazine focused on Ukrainian war veterans. As reported in the Mercer and Woolf article in The Globe and Mail: “He talks about how under Stalin, he saw children and their families shipped away to Siberia, and later found out his aunt and uncle had also been taken. When the Galicia Division was created, many young Ukrainians jumped at the chance to fight back [against the Russians], he said.”
  24. Wolfe, xxi, xxi-footnote.
  25. Patrick Wolfe, December 2010 version of A Snake on the Heart, Vol. II, 571.
  26. The Canadian Press, “Rota debacle renews calls to examine history,” Times Colonist, Thursday, September 28, 2023, A9.


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