In 1992, I studied for a school year in Paris. My roommate was French. One night, over cheap port from the local grocery, we got to talking about World War II. “Everyone’s grandparents fought in the Resistance,” my roommate said. He paused for a beat. “The Resistance wasn’t that big.”
He was paraphrasing J.B.S. Haldane, who said, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” War, my roommate was implying, is so horrible that just about nobody dares look it in the face.
This is obvious to most Europeans and hard for most Canadians to understand. Their war happened at home; ours happened an ocean away. A consistent thread in Canadian veterans’ accounts of their return home was the widespread lack of interest in hearing what the soldiers had seen and done. A rough consensus among Canadians who’d stayed home during the war was that no good could come from knowing.
The news this week is that Chrystia Freeland’s maternal grandfather worked on a Nazi-operated newspaper in Krakow during the war. Canada’s foreign minister would prefer not to say so. When first asked about it at a news conference on Monday, she bobbed and weaved. It’s “public knowledge that there have been efforts, as U.S. intelligence forces have said, by Russia to destabilize the U.S. political system,” Freeland said. “I think that Canadians, and indeed other western countries, should be prepared for similar efforts to be directed at us.”
Freeland’s answer was true, as far as it went. Canadians should indeed be prepared for Russia to lead efforts to destabilize Canada’s political leadership. It makes sense that Freeland would be a target. She’s already banned from travelling to Russia, as part of the tit-for-tat game of escalating sanctions the Russians played with the West in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea, in Ukraine. Freeland is obviously the leading voice in the government for rebutting Russia’s actions there.
And indeed, tales of Freeland’s grandfather Michael Chomiak have been circulating on pro-Putin social media accounts and websites since January.
The tales also appear to be founded in demonstrable fact. The truth of Chomiak’s stint at a Nazi-controlled newspaper in occupied Krakow has been known to Freeland for more than 20 years. Her uncle, historian John-Paul Himka, wrote about Chomiak in a 1996 journal article. Freeland helped edit the article.
There’s no evidence Chomiak wrote any of the anti-Jewish diatribes that flowed like sewage through the pages of the newspaper, Krakivski Visti. His state of mind at the time cannot be known to us. After the war he told his family he had worked with the anti-Nazi resistance, helping its members get false papers. Perhaps it’s true. Perhaps it’s one of the stories people tell themselves later, as they try to live with the things they did to stay alive in hell.
What we know is that if Chomiak was still alive at the end of the war, it’s because he took pains to stay on the right side of the murderers who had occupied Ukraine and Poland for the war’s duration. Everyone did. Everyone had to. You might be a resister for three hours a day after collaborating the other 21. Those who didn’t manage to escape to the West, as Chomiak and his family did, stayed behind and spent generations staying on the right side of the new occupiers, the Stalinist murderers who took over from the Nazis.
Today in central Europe there are political parties that believe they can draw clean moral distinctions through the countless layers of betrayal and accommodation that characterized those terrible lost decades. One of them is in power now in Poland. That country’s current government seeks to blame and penalize people today for their behaviour under Communism. It’s a terrible waste of effort because no coherent allotment of blame and absolution is possible. That’s what totalitarianism does to a society. As Winston Smith learns by the end of 1984, “Under the spreading chestnut tree / I sold you and you sold me.”
The point of such black eras in history is to survive them and avoid repeating them. Chrystia Freeland is in the business of helping societies—ours, Ukraine’s, the world’s—stay on the side of sanity. It makes her a target. The fact that her family existed in the damned 20th century gives her opponents ammunition. None of this takes away the legitimacy of her important work.
Paul Wells is a national affairs writer for The Toronto Star. This column was released on March 10.
The Hill Times