BERLIN — A top commander of a Nazi SS-led unit accused of 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.
Michael Karkoc, 94, 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 SS-led Ukrainian Self Defense 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. The Galician Division and a Ukrainian nationalist organization he served in were both on a secret American government blacklist of organizations whose members were forbidden from entering the United States at the time.
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.
Polish prosecutors announced Friday after the release of the AP investigation that 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.
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, 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 showing Karkoc lied to American officials and that his unit carried out atrocities is strong enough for deportation and war-crimes prosecution in Germany or Poland.
"In America this is a relatively easy case: If he was the commander of a unit that carried out atrocities, that's a no brainer," Zuroff said. "Even in Germany . . . if the guy was the commander of the unit, then even if they can't show he personally pulled the trigger, he bears responsibility."
German prosecutors are obligated to open an investigation if there is enough "initial suspicion" of possible involvement in war crimes, said Thomas Walther, a former prosecutor with the special German office that investigates Nazi war crimes.
The current deputy head of that office, Thomas Will, said there is no indication that Karkoc had ever been investigated by Germany. Based on the AP's evidence, he said he is now interested in gathering information that could result in prosecution.
Karkoc 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.
Members of his 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 order.
"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.
"Later, when we were passing in file through the destroyed village," Malazhenski said, "I could see the dead bodies of the killed residents: men, women, children."
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 Ukrainian library.
Karkoc's name surfaced when a retired clinical pharmacologist who took up Nazi war crimes research in his free time came across it while looking into members of the SS Galician Division who emigrated to Britain. He tipped off AP when an Internet search showed an address for Karkoc in Minnesota.
Karkoc, an ethnic Ukrainian, was born in the city of Lutsk in 1919, according to details he provided American 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. Several wartime Nazi documents note the same birth date, but say he was born in Horodok, a town in the same region.
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, a Nazi award 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. Initially small, it eventually numbered some 600 soldiers. The legion was dissolved and folded into the SS Galician Division in 1945; Karkoc wrote that he remained with it until the end of the war.
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 OUN. The United States does not typically have jurisdiction to prosecute Nazi war crimes but has won more than 100 "denaturalization and removal actions" against people suspected of them.
Department of Justice spokesman Michael Passman would not comment on whether Karkoc had ever come to the department's attention, citing a policy not to confirm or deny the existence of investigations.
Villagers today blame the attack generically on "the Nazis" — something that experts say is not unusual in Ukraine because of the exalted status former Ukrainian nationalist troops.
After the war, 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 U.S.
He told American officials he was a carpenter, and records indicate he worked for a nationwide construction company that has an office in Minneapolis.
Karkoc's next-door neighbor said has known the Ukrainian immigrant for many years, and was stunned to learn about the Nazi past of a man he has shared laughs with and known as a churchgoer.
"For me, this is a shock," said Gordon Gnasdoskey, 79. "To come to this country and take advantage of its freedoms all of these years, it blows my mind."