BERLIN (AP) — A retired Minnesota carpenter, shown in a June investigation to be a former commander in a Nazi SS-led unit, ordered his men to attack a Polish village that was razed to the ground, according to testimony newly uncovered by The Associated Press. The account of the massacre that killed dozens of women and children contradicts statements by the man's family that he was never at the scene of the 1944 bloodshed.
The June story prompted official investigations in both Poland and Germany. On Monday, the prosecutor leading Germany's probe revealed to the AP that he has decided to recommend that state prosecutors pursue murder charges against 94-year-old Michael Karkoc.
Thomas Will, the deputy head of the special prosecutors' office that investigates Nazi crimes, said he had made his decision even before seeing the new testimony that Karkoc ordered his unit to attack the Polish village of Chlaniow. "We have determined the requirements for murder charges are there," said Will.
AP's initial investigation found that Karkoc entered the U.S. in 1949 by failing to disclose to American authorities his role as a commander in the SS-led Ukrainian Self Defense Legion, which is accused of torching villages and killing civilians in Poland. The investigation found that Karkoc was in the area of the massacres, but did not uncover evidence linking him directly to atrocities.
However, a newly unearthed investigative file originally from the Ukrainian intelligence agency's archive reveals that a private under Karkoc's command testified in 1968 that Karkoc ordered the assault on Chlaniow in retaliation for the slaying of an SS major. The major, slain by resistance fighters, led the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion, in which Karkoc was a company commander.
A German roster of the unit confirms that Pvt. Ivan Sharko, a Ukrainian, served under Karkoc's command at the time.
An initial order was given by a separate officer, Sharko testified, before Karkoc told his unit to attack the village.
"The command was given by one of the commanders to cordon off the village and prepare for battle," Sharko said, according to the Russian-language investigative file, which bears the stamp of Ukraine's Volyn regional prosecutors' office. "The commander of our company, Wolf, also gave the command to cordon off the village and check all the houses, and to find and punish the partisans." Karkoc fought under the wartime nom de guerre "Wolf," and he wrote a 1995 Ukrainian-language war memoir under both his real name and the pseudonym "Wolf."
According to the document, Sharko described how nobody was spared in the ferocious onslaught on Chlaniow.
"The legionaries surrounded the homes, set fire to them with matches, or with incendiary bullets, and they shot anyone who was found in the homes or anywhere in the streets," Sharko said. "Most of the houses were burned as a result of this action. How many people were killed in all, I don't know. I personally saw three corpses of peaceful inhabitants who had been killed."
The AP learned of the file's existence after its initial report and subsequently tracked down and reviewed its contents.
Other eyewitness accounts, both from villagers and members of Karkoc's unit, corroborate the testimony that the company set buildings on fire and gunned down more than 40 men, women and children. Michael Karkoc continues to live quietly in Minneapolis as he has for decades.
Karkoc's son and family spokesman, Andriy Karkos, has denied his 94-year-old father's involvement in the Chlaniow incident or any other possible war crime.
Karkos, who spells his surname differently from his father, refused to comment on the Sharko testimony when reached by phone: "Until and unless The Associated Press can provide their alleged evidence and their witness, we will not respond to your defamatory and slanderous allegation," he said Friday. Sharko died in the 1980s.
In July, weeks after Karkoc's commanding role in the SS-led Legion was revealed, Karkos questioned the statements from men in his father's unit and comments in his father's memoir suggesting he was at the scene. He was cited by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as saying his father told him he was not in Chlaniow when the killings took place, and wrote in a letter to the same newspaper that his father was no war criminal.
"There is no record that Karkoc had a hand in any war crimes," Karkos wrote. "He did nothing wrong. He never lied. He's not afraid of the truth."
Stephen Paskey, who led Nazi investigations for nine years as a prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations, said the Sharko testimony is highly credible and should bolster cases in Germany and Poland to launch prosecutions against Karkoc. He noted that Sharko did not appear to be in custody or under investigation at the time of his questioning, and that many of his statements are confirmed by historical documents.
"I see no reason to doubt that is what (Sharko) said and that it was said without any pressure," said Paskey, now a law professor at the SUNY Buffalo Law School. "And that's exactly the sort of thing that would help persuade a judge that it's credible — that there's other evidence to corroborate the other things that he said. ... There's no indication in the Soviet statement that the guy they were interviewing had a motive to lie."
Following the initial report, both German and Polish prosecutors opened investigations into whether to charge Karkoc with war crimes, based on the fact he had "command responsibility" for his unit when it committed massacres. Karkoc was a founding member of the SS-led Ukrainian Self Defense Legion and later an officer in the SS Galician Division.
Germany has in recent years taken the position that people suspected of Nazi crimes must be prosecuted, no matter how old or infirm, as it did in the case of retired Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk, who died last year at age 91 while appealing his conviction as a guard at the Sobibor death camp.
German prosecutor Will, whose office has no powers to file charges itself, said he will ask this week that Germany's Federal Criminal Court determine which state prosecutors are most suited to handle the case. They will then have to review the evidence and decide whether to charge Karkoc, and whether Germany has jurisdiction.
"There is sufficient evidence that (Karkoc) was there," Will said.
Polish prosecutors said their investigation was ongoing — and that they have told the Foreign Ministry they need to ask "the American side to question (Karkoc) in the capacity of a suspect." They referred further queries to the ministry, which did not respond to requests for comment.
The U.S. Department of Justice refused to comment on whether it had initiated its own investigation or was aiding the Polish investigation.
"The Department of Justice is aware of the allegations, which have been widely published," spokesman Peter Carr wrote in an email. "We generally do not confirm nor deny whether an individual is under investigation."
Even without the Sharko testimony there is a case against Karkoc from the evidence uncovered in the initial report, Paskey said.
"If he gave the order, there's no question he's guilty of war crimes," Paskey said in a telephone interview. "Even if he didn't give the order, as the commander in the area it was his responsibility — if he knew about it to stop it, and if he learned about it after to investigate it and punish those responsible. That's what command responsibility is."
Other soldiers who served under Karkoc back up Sharko's testimony about civilian killings: Vasyl Malazhenski, also a private, told Soviet investigators that in 1944 that unit was directed to "liquidate all the residents" of Chlaniow — although he did not say who gave the order.
Sharko also testified in the investigative documents that Karkoc's company was directly involved in a "punitive mission" against Poles near the village of Sagryn in 1944.
"We were told that Poles had attacked the village of Sagryn and were killing Ukrainian families," Sharko said. "And that's why we had to defend the families of Ukrainians and take revenge against the Poles."
Sharko made his statements to authorities in Ukraine in 1967 and 1968 for an investigation they were conducting against the Self Defense Legion. The documents noted he was living at the time in the village of Vorchin in Ukraine. Local official Oleksandr Petrovich said Sharko had been a resident, and died in the mid-1980s.
Many of Sharko's statements are backed up by other evidence and historical fact, giving weight to the overall testimony, said University of Ottawa professor Ivan Katchanovski, a Ukrainian-born political scientist who has done extensive research on the Self Defense Legion.
"I analyzed several hundred such Soviet-era investigative cases for my academic research projects," he said. "Based on this research and direct or indirect corroboration of information from the Sharko's testimony by other sources — including the Karkoc memoirs, his testimony concerning the Legion, massacres that it committed, and the involvement of Michael Karkoc in the specific massacre — looks credible."
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis, Monica Scislowska in Warsaw, David McHugh in Frankfurt, and Mark Rachkevych in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report. Herschaft reported from New York.
David Rising can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/davidrising ; Randy Herschaft at http://www.twitter.com/HerschaftAP