BERLIN (AP) — 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.
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.
The deputy head of the German office that investigates Nazi war crimes, Thomas Will, said that based on the AP's evidence, he is interested in gathering information that could possibly result in prosecution.
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.
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, 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, 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.
The AP located a copy 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. Stephen Ankier, who is based in London, tipped off 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 file said standard background checks found no red flags that would disqualify him from entering the United States but noted that key information from the Soviet side was missing.
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. Karkoc signed the document.
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.
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. The legion eventually numbered some 600 soldiers and was folded into the SS Galician Division in 1945.
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.
In Washington, Justice Department spokesman Michael Passman said the agency was aware of the AP story but could neither confirm nor deny details of specific investigations as a matter of policy.
Though Karkoc talks in his memoirs about fighting anti-Nazi Polish resistance fighters, he makes no mention of attacks on civilians. He does indicate 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 was described in detail by Malazhenski in his 1967 statement. An SS administrative list obtained by AP shows that Karkoc was Malazhenski's commander.
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.
"The Ukrainians were setting fire to the buildings," Chlaniow villager Stanislawa Lipska told a communist-era commission in 1948. "You could hear machine-gun shots and grenade explosions. Shots could be heard inside the village and on the outskirts. They were making sure no one escaped."
Witness statements and other documentation also link the unit circumstantially to a 1943 massacre in Pidhaitsi, on the outskirts of Lutsk —today part of Ukraine — where the Self Defense Legion was once based. A total of 21 villagers, mostly women and children, were slaughtered.
Heorhiy Syvyi was a 9-year-old boy when troops swarmed into Pidhaitsi on Dec. 3 but managed to flee with his father and hide.
"When we came out we saw the smoldering ashes of the burned house and our neighbors searching for the dead. My mother had my brother clasped to her chest. This is how she was found — black and burned," said Syvyi, now 78.
There is evidence that the unit took part in the brutal suppression of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, fighting the nationalist Polish Home Army as it sought to rid the city of its Nazi occupiers.
The uprising was put down by the Nazis in a house-to-house fight characterized by its ferocity.
The Self Defense Legion's exact role is not known, but Nazi documents indicate that Karkoc and his unit were there.
An SS payroll document, dated Oct. 12, 1944, says 10 members of the Self Defense Legion "fell while deployed to Warsaw." Karkoc is listed as the highest-ranking commander of 2 Company — a lieutenant — on a pay sheet.
Following 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.
After he arrived in Minneapolis, he remarried and had four more children, the last born in 1966.
Karkoc told American officials he was a carpenter, and records indicate he worked for a nationwide construction company that has an office in Minneapolis.
A longtime member of the Ukrainian National Association, Karkoc 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."
Herschaft reported from New York and Scislowska from Warsaw; Doug Glass, Patrick Condon and Amy Forliti in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Maria Danilova in Kiev, Ukraine; Efrem Lukatsky in Pidhaitsi, and Svetlana Fedas in Lviv, Ukraine, contributed to this story.
David Rising can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/davidrising ; Randy Herschaft at http://www.twitter.com/HerschaftAP