MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The revelation that a former commander of a Nazi SS-led military unit has lived quietly in Minneapolis for the past six decades came as a shock to those who know 94-year-old Michael Karkoc. World War II survivors in both the U.S. and Europe harshly condemned the news and prosecutors in Poland have said they'll investigate.
An Associated Press investigation found that Karkoc served as a top commander in the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion during World War II. The unit is accused of wartime atrocities, including the burning of villages filled with women and children.
"I know him personally. We talk, laugh. He takes care of his yard and walks with his wife," his next-door neighbor, Gordon Gnasdoskey, said Friday.
"For me, this is a shock. To come to this country and take advantage of its freedoms all of these years, it blows my mind," said Gnasdoskey, the grandson of a Ukrainian immigrant himself.
Karkoc 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 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.
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.
No one answered the door Friday morning at Karkoc's house on a residential street in northeast Minneapolis. Karkoc had earlier declined to comment on his wartime service when approached by the AP, and repeated efforts to arrange an interview through his son were unsuccessful.
Late Friday, Karkoc's son, Andriy Karkos, read a statement accusing AP of defaming his father. Karkoc became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1959.
"My father was never a Nazi," said Karkos, who uses a different spelling for his last name. He also said the family wouldn't comment further until it has obtained its own documents and reviewed witnesses and sources.
Family attorney Philip Villaume said Saturday that the family may comment further within a few days. "Their intention is to investigate the matter and research it, and then they'll make a further public statement," he said.
Polish prosecutors announced Friday 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.
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 of Karkoc's lies as well as the unit's role in atrocities is strong enough for deportation and war crimes prosecution in Germany or Poland.
Former German army officer Josef Scheungraber — a lieutenant like Karkoc — was convicted in Germany in 2009 on charges of murder based on circumstantial evidence that put him at the scene of a Nazi wartime massacre in Italy as the ranking officer.
Members of Karkoc's 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.
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 currently lives in a modest house in an area of Minneapolis that has a significant Ukrainian population. He recently came to the door without help of a cane or a walker. He would not comment on his wartime service: "I don't think I can explain," he said.