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Former Nazi commander found living in Minnesota

Michael Karkoc was commander of a Nazi SS led-unit, and now lives in Minnesota, according to a new investigation.

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 organisation he served in were both on a secret American government blacklist of organisations 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.

Michael Karkoc, photographed in Lauderdale, prior to  a visit to Minnesota from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in early June of 1990.  Pic: AP Photo/The St Paul Pioneer Press, Chris Polydoroff

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 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.

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 possibly result in prosecution.

Prosecution in Poland may also be a possibility because most of the unit’s alleged crimes were against Poles on Polish territory. But Karkoc would be unlikely to be tried in his native Ukraine, where such men are today largely seen as national heroes who fought for the country against the Soviet Union.

Heinrich Himmler, centre,  SS Reichsfuehrer-SS, head of the Gestapo and the Waffen-SS, and Minister of the Interior of Nazi Germany from 1943 to 1945, as he reviews troops of the Galician SS-Volunteer Infantry Division.  Karkoc became a member of the Galician division after the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion was incorporated into it near the end of the war. (AP photo/ US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Atlantic Foto Verlag Berlin)

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.

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… I could see the dead bodies of the killed residents: men, women, children.

Memoir

In a background check by US 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 labour 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.

This undated reproduction shows a page of Michael Karkoc’s 1949 US Army intelligence file. (AP Photo)

It was not clear why Karkoc felt safe publishing his memoir, which is available at the US 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.

The AP located Karkoc’s US 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 with seven different agencies found no red flags that would disqualify him from entering the United States. But it also noted that it lacked key information from the Soviet side:

Verification of identity and complete establishment of applicant’s reliability is not possible due to the inaccessibility of records and geographic area of applicant’s former residence.

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 January 8, 1945 confirming that Karkoc was present in Krakow, Poland, to collect his salary as a member of the Self Defense Legion.

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.

The header of  Michael Karkoc’s petition for naturalisation obtained from the US National Archives in Illinois.  The petition was granted. Pic: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

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 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 US 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.

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.

He did not mention the retaliatory massacre that followed, which was described by Malazhenski in his 1967 statement used to help convict platoon leader Teodozy Dak of war crimes in Poland in 1972. An SS administrative list obtained by AP shows that Karkoc commanded both Malazhenski and Dak, who died in prison in 1974.

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.

Villagers offered chilling testimony about the brutality of the attack.

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.

Karkoc says in his memoir that his unit was founded and headquartered there in 1943 and later mentions that Pidhaitsi was still the unit’s base in January 1944.

Another legion member, Kost Hirniak, said in his own 1977 memoir that the unit, while away on a mission, was suddenly ordered back to Pidhaitsi after a German soldier was killed in the area; it arrived on December 2, 1943.

The next day, though Hirniak does not mention it, nearly two dozen civilians, primarily women and children, were slaughtered in Pidhaitsi. There is no indication any other units were in the area at the time.

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 enjoy.

However, Pidhaitsi schoolteacher Galyna Sydorchuk told the AP that “there is a version” of the story in the village that the Ukrainian troops were involved in the December massacre.

“There were many in Pidhaitsi who were involved in the Self Defense Legion,” she said. “But they obviously keep it secret.”

A monument pays tribute to civilians who were burned alive during WWII in Pidhaitsi close to Ukraine’s western city of Lutsk. Pic: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

There is evidence that the unit took part in the brutal suppression of the Warsaw Uprising, fighting the nationalist Polish Home Army as it sought to rid the city of its Nazi occupiers and take control of the city ahead of the advancing Soviet Army.

The uprising, which started in August 1944, was put down by the Nazis by the beginning of October 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 October 12, 1944, says 10 members of the Self Defense Legion “fell while deployed to Warsaw” and more than 30 others were injured. Karkoc is listed as the highest-ranking commander of 2 Company — a lieutenant — on a pay sheet that also lists Dak as one of his officers.

Another Nazi accounting document uncovered by the AP in the Polish National Archives in Krakow lists Karkoc by name — including his rank, birthdate and hometown — as one of 219 “members of the SMdS-Batl 31 who were in Warsaw,” using the German abbreviation for the Self Defense Legion.

In early 1945, the Self Defense Legion was integrated into the SS Galicia Division, and Karkoc said in his memoirs that he served as a deputy company commander until the end of the war.

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 US.

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.

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 [Ukrainian National Association] activist.”

- David Rising, Associated press, Monika Scislowska, AP, Randy Herschaft AP.

Read: Germany arrests 93-year-old over alleged duty at Auschwitz>

Read: Neo-Nazi trial raises awkward questions for Germany>

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