Accounts say company he commanded massacred civilians, place him at scene
June 15, 2013 4:00 AM
Michael Karkoc, photographed in Lauderdale, Minn., on May 22, 1990, prior to a visit to Minnesota from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in early June that year. Mr. Karkoc, a top commander whose Nazi SS-led unit is blamed for burning villages filled with women and children, lied to American immigration officials to get into the United States and has been living in Minnesota since shortly after World War II, according to evidence uncovered by The Associated Press.
By David Rising, Randy Herschaft and Monika Scislowska Associated Press
BERLIN -- A top commander of a Nazi SS-led unit accused of burning villages filled with women and children lied to U.S. immigration officials to get into the United States and has been living in Minnesota since shortly after World War II, according to evidence uncovered by The Associated Press.
Michael Karkoc, 94, told U.S. 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 SS-led Ukrainian Self Defense Legion and later as an officer in the SS Galician Division, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The Galician Division and a Ukrainian nationalist organization he served in were both then on a secret U.S. government blacklist of organizations whose members were forbidden from entering the United States.
Though records do not show that Mr. Karkoc had a direct hand in war crimes, statements from men in his unit and other documentation confirm that the Ukrainian company he commanded massacred civilians, and suggest that Mr. 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.
Polish prosecutors announced Friday after the release of the AP investigation that they will investigate Mr. 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.
Mr. Karkoc refused to discuss his wartime past at his home in Minneapolis, and repeated efforts to set up an interview, using his son as an intermediary, were unsuccessful.
Efraim Zuroff, 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 showing Mr. Karkoc lied to U.S. officials and that his unit carried out atrocities is strong enough for deportation and war crimes prosecution in Germany or Poland. The deputy head of the German office that investigates Nazi war crimes, Thomas Will, said that based on that evidence, he is interested in gathering information that could possibly result in prosecution.
Mr. Karkoc now lives in a modest house in northeast Minneapolis in an area with a significant Ukrainian population. Even at his advanced age, he came to the door without help of a cane or a walker. He would not comment on his wartime service for Nazi Germany. "I don't think I can explain," he said.
His unit's members and other witnesses have told stories of brutal attacks on civilians.
One of Mr. Karkoc's men, Vasyl Malazhenski, told Soviet investigators that the unit was directed in 1944 to "liquidate all the residents" of the village of Chlaniow, Poland, in a reprisal attack for the killing of a German SS officer, though he did not say who gave the order.
In a background check by U.S. officials on April 14, 1949, Mr. 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."
But in a Ukrainian-language memoir published in 1995, Mr. 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 war's end.
Mr. Karkoc, an ethnic Ukrainian, was born in the city of Lutsk in 1919, according to details he provided to U.S. officials. At the time, the area was being fought over by Ukraine, Poland and others; it ended up part of Poland until World War II. 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.
Policy at the time of Mr. Karkoc's immigration application, according to a declassified secret U.S. government document from the National Archives, was to deny a visa to anyone who had served in either the SS Galician Division or the Ukrainian nationalist organization OUN.
Though Mr. Karkoc talks in his memoirs of fighting anti-Nazi Polish resistance fighters, he makes no mention of attacks on civilians. He does indicate that he was with his company in the summer of 1944, when the Self Defense Legion's commander, Siegfried Assmuss, was killed by a partisan attack near Chlaniow. He did not mention the retaliatory massacre that followed, which Mr. Malazhenski described in detail in his 1967 statement. An SS administrative list shows that Mr. Karkoc was Mr. Malazhenski's commander.
Mr. Malazhenski said the Ukrainian unit was ordered to liquidate Chlaniow in reprisal for Assmuss' death, and moved in the next day, machine-gunning people and torching homes. More than 40 people died.
Witness statements and other documentation also link the unit circumstantially to a 1943 massacre in Pidhaitsi, on Lutsk's outskirts -- today part of Ukraine -- where the Self Defense Legion was once based. A total of 21 villagers, mostly women and children, were slaughtered.
After the war, Mr. Karkoc ended up in a camp for displaced people in Neu Ulm, Germany, according to documents obtained from the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany. The documents indicate that his wife died in 1948, a year before he and their two young boys, born in 1945 and 1946, emigrated to the United States. After he arrived in Minneapolis, he remarried and had four more children, the last born in 1966.
Mr. Karkoc told U.S. officials he was a carpenter, and records indicate he worked for a nationwide construction firm that has a Minneapolis office. A longtime Ukrainian National Association member, he has been closely involved in community affairs over the past decades and was identified in a 2002 article in a Ukrainian-American publication as a "longtime UNA activist."