Shock as 94-yr-old Minneapolis man revealed as Nazi commander
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - The revelation that a former commander of a Nazi
SS-led military unit has lived quietly in Minneapolis for the past six
decades came as a shock to those who know 94-year-old Michael Karkoc.
World War II survivors in both the U.S. and Europe harshly condemned the
news and prosecutors in Poland have said they'll investigate.
An Associated Press investigation found that Karkoc
served as a top commander in the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion during
World War II. The unit is accused of wartime atrocities, including the
burning of villages filled with women and children.
"I know him personally. We talk, laugh. He takes
care of his yard and walks with his wife," his next-door neighbor,
Gordon Gnasdoskey, said Friday.
"For me, this is a shock. To come to this country
and take advantage of its freedoms all of these years, it blows my
mind," said Gnasdoskey, the grandson of a Ukrainian immigrant himself.
Karkoc told American authorities in 1949 that he
had performed no military service during World War II, concealing his
work as an officer and founding member of the legion and later as an
officer in the SS Galician Division, according to records obtained by
the AP through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Though records do not show that Karkoc had a direct
hand in war crimes, statements from men in his unit and other
documentation confirm the Ukrainian company he commanded massacred
civilians, and suggest that Karkoc was at the scene of these atrocities
as the company leader. Nazi SS files say he and his unit were also
involved in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, in which the Nazis brutally
suppressed a Polish rebellion against German occupation.
No one answered the door Friday morning at Karkoc's
house on a residential street in northeast Minneapolis. Karkoc had
earlier declined to comment on his wartime service when approached by
the AP, and repeated efforts to arrange an interview through his son
Late Friday, Karkoc's son, Andriy Karkos, read a
statement accusing AP of defaming his father. Karkoc became a
naturalized U.S. citizen in 1959.
"My father was never a Nazi," said Karkos, who uses
a different spelling for his last name. He also said the family
wouldn't comment further until it has obtained its own documents and
reviewed witnesses and sources.
Family attorney Philip Villaume said Saturday that
the family may comment further within a few days. "Their intention is to
investigate the matter and research it, and then they'll make a further
public statement," he said.
Polish prosecutors announced Friday they will
investigate Karkoc and provide "every possible assistance" to the U.S.
Department of Justice, which has used lies in immigration papers to
deport dozens of suspected Nazi war criminals.
The AP evidence of Karkoc's wartime activities has
also prompted German authorities to express interest in exploring
whether there is enough to prosecute. In Germany, Nazis with "command
responsibility" can be charged with war crimes even if their direct
involvement in atrocities cannot be proven.
Efraim Zuroff, the lead Nazi hunter at the Simon
Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, said that based on his decades of
experience pursuing Nazi war criminals, he expects that the evidence of
Karkoc's lies as well as the unit's role in atrocities is strong enough
for deportation and war crimes prosecution in Germany or Poland.
Former German army officer Josef Scheungraber - a
lieutenant like Karkoc - was convicted in Germany in 2009 on charges of
murder based on circumstantial evidence that put him at the scene of a
Nazi wartime massacre in Italy as the ranking officer.
Members of Karkoc's unit and other witnesses have told stories of brutal attacks on civilians.
One of Karkoc's men, Vasyl Malazhenski, told Soviet
investigators that in 1944 the unit was directed to "liquidate all the
residents" of the village of Chlaniow in a reprisal attack for the
killing of a German SS officer, though he did not say who gave the
"It was all like a trance: setting the fires, the
shooting, the destroying," Malazhenski recalled, according to the 1967
statement found by the AP in the archives of Warsaw's state-run
Institute of National Remembrance, which investigates and prosecutes
German and Soviet crimes on Poles during and after World War II.
In a background check by U.S. officials on April
14, 1949, Karkoc said he had never performed any military service,
telling investigators that he "worked for father until 1944. Worked in
labor camp from 1944 until 1945."
However, in a Ukrainian-language memoir published
in 1995, Karkoc states that he helped found the Ukrainian Self Defense
Legion in 1943 in collaboration with the Nazis' feared SS intelligence
agency, the SD, to fight on the side of Germany - and served as a
company commander in the unit, which received orders directly from the
SS, through the end of the war.
It was not clear why Karkoc felt safe publishing
his memoir, which is available at the U.S. Library of Congress and the
British Library and which the AP located online in an electronic
Karkoc currently lives in a modest house in an area
of Minneapolis that has a significant Ukrainian population. He recently
came to the door without help of a cane or a walker. He would not
comment on his wartime service: "I don't think I can explain," he said.
Karkoc and his family are longtime members of the St. Michael's and St. George's Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
"All the time I am here, I know him as a good man, a
good citizen," said the Rev. Evhen Kumka, the church's pastor. "He's
well known in the congregation."
Kumka moved from Ukraine to Minnesota 19 years ago
to lead the congregation, and said Karkoc was already active in the
church. Kumka wouldn't say whether he'd spoken to Karkoc about his past,
but said he was skeptical.
"I don't think everything is correct," Kumka said. "As I know him, he is a good example for many people."
Karkoc worked as a carpenter in Minneapolis, and
appeared in a 1980 issue of Carpenter magazine among a group celebrating
25 years of union membership. He was a member and a secretary in the
local branch of the Ukrainian National Association, a fraternal
organization, and voting records obtained by the AP show he regularly
voted in city, state and general elections.
Karkoc's name surfaced when a retired clinical
pharmacologist who researched Nazi war crimes in his free time came
across it while looking into members of the SS Galician Division who
immigrated to Britain. He tipped off the AP when an Internet search
showed an address for Karkoc in Minnesota.
The AP located Karkoc's U.S. Army intelligence
file, and got it declassified by the National Archives in Maryland
through a FOIA request. The Army was responsible for processing visa
applications after the war under the Displaced Persons Act.
The intelligence file said standard background
checks found no red flags that would disqualify Karkoc from entering the
United States. But it also noted that it lacked key information from
the Soviet side regarding the verification of his identity.
Wartime documents located by the AP also confirm
Karkoc's membership in the Self Defense Legion. They include a Nazi
payroll sheet found in Polish archives, signed by an SS officer on Jan.
8, 1945 - only four months before the war's end - confirming that Karkoc
was present in Krakow, Poland, to collect his salary as a member of the
Self Defense Legion.
He joined the regular German army after the Nazi
invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and fought on the Eastern Front in
Ukraine and Russia, according to his memoirs, which say he was awarded
an Iron Cross for bravery.
He was also a member of the Ukrainian nationalist
organization OUN; in 1943, he helped negotiate with the Nazis to have
men drawn from its membership form the Self Defense Legion, according to
his account. In 1945, the legion was dissolved and folded into the SS
Policy at the time of Karkoc's immigration
application - according to a declassified secret U.S. government
document obtained by the AP from the National Archives - was to deny a
visa to anyone who had served in either the SS Galician Division or the
Justice Department spokesman Michael Passman in
Washington said the agency was aware of the AP story and could not
confirm or deny an investigation.
News of Karkoc's past prompted anger from World War
II survivors in countries where the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion was
active. In Poland, Honorata Banach told the AP she wants Karkoc to
apologize. She was 20 when she fled the Polish village of Chlaniow
before it was burned down by the legion.
"There was so much suffering, so many orphans, so
much pain," Banach said. She and her mother returned the day after the
attack, she said, to see that "everything was burned down, even the
fences, the trees. I could not even find my house."
Survivors told her the Ukrainian legion did it, she said.
Sam Rafowitz, an 88-year-old Jewish resident of the
Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka, grew up in Warsaw, Poland, and spent
four years working in concentration camps. He took a hard line after
hearing the news about Karkoc.
"I think they should put him on trial," said
Rafowitz, who lost his mother and other relatives at the Majdanek
concentration camp in Lublin, Poland. He said soldiers in the camp were
German but that it was run by Ukrainians.
"You don't forget," Rafowitz said. "For me, it's
been almost close to 70 years those things happened, but I still know
about it. I still remember everything."
Menachem Rosensaft, who was born in the
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, now teaches the law of genocide and
war crimes at several New York universities. He said Karkoc is a
reminder that the Holocaust and other genocides "cannot be viewed as
"I have every confidence that if Mr. Karkoc was not
already on the Justice Department's radar screen, he now is," Rosensaft
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