YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHERE A FORMER NAZI SS COMMANDER WAS FOUND HIDING
14, 2013 11:38am Becket Adams
In this May 22, 1990 photo, Michael Karkoc, photographed in Lauderdale,
Minn. prior to a visit to Minnesota from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in
early June of 1990. (AP Photo/The St. Paul Pioneer Press, Chris Polydoroff)
(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.
The U.S. Department of Justice has used lies about wartime service made
in immigration papers to deport dozens of suspected Nazi war criminals. The
evidence of Karkoc’s wartime activities uncovered by AP has 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,
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.”
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 on the scene of a Nazi wartime massacre in Italy as the
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.
Adolf Hitler and his chief of police Heinrich Himmler inspecting the SS
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.
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 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,
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.”
Rows of Nazi SS troops stand in uniform at Nuremberg, Germany. They wear
helmets with a double lightning bolt emblem. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty
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.
“Here was a chance to publicly confront a man who commanded a company
alleged to be involved in the cruel murder of innocent people,” said Stephen
Ankier, who is based in London.
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
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 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
using Cyrillic letters.
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.
German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (L) standing in a convertible Mercedes
reviews SA and SS troops. (Getty Images)
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
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 U.S. 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.
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, whose SS rank was equivalent to major –
“We lost an irreplaceable commander, Assmuss,” he wrote about the partisan
attack near Chlaniow.
He did not mention the retaliatory massacre that followed, which was
described in detail 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.
A Nazi SS-man inspects a group of Jewish workers in April 1943 in the
Ghetto of Warsaw. (Getty Images)
“The village was on fire,” Malazhenski said.
Villagers offered chilling testimony about the brutality of the attack.
In 1948, Chlaniow villager Stanislawa Lipska told a communist-era
commission that she heard shots at about 7 a.m., then saw “the Ukrainian SS
force” entering the town, calling out in Ukrainian and Polish for people to
come out of their homes.
“The Ukrainians were setting fire to the buildings,” Lipska said in a
statement, also used in the Dak trial. “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.
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
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 Dec. 2, 1943.
Heinrich Himmler (1900 – 1945), the Nazi Chief of Police. (Getty Images)
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.
Heorhiy Syvyi was a 9-year-old boy when troops swarmed into town on Dec.
3 and managed to flee with his father and hide in a shelter covered with
branches. His mother and 4-year-old brother were killed.
“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, 78, sitting
on a bench outside his home.
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.
Greek civilians look on as the Germany army makes its way to
Thessaloniki in April 1941. (Getty)
“There were many in Pidhaitsi who were involved in the Self Defense
Legion,” she said. “But they obviously keep it secret.”
Ivan Katchanovski, a Ukrainian political scientist who has done
extensive research on the Self Defense Legion, said its members have been
careful to cultivate the myth that their service to Nazi Germany was solely a
fight against Soviet communism. But he said its actions – fighting partisans
and reprisal attacks on civilians – tell a different story.
“Under the pretext of anti-partisan action they acted as a kind of
police unit to suppress and kill or punish the local populations. This became
their main mission,” said Katchanovski, who went to high school in Pidhaitsi
and now teaches at the University of Ottawa in Canada. “There is evidence of
clashes with Polish partisans, but most of their clashes were small, and their
most visible actions were mass killings of civilians.”
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
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” 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.
The flag parade of Hitler’s militia (SS and SA) at a Nazi Rally in the
Luitpold Stadium at Nuremberg. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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 S.M.d.S.-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 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
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.”
The lights were on at Karkoc’s home Friday morning, but nobody answered
a knock from an AP reporter seeking reaction to this story.
Death march: Jewish civilians are forced out of Warsaw. (Getty Images)
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
[Herschaft reported from New York and Scislowska from Warsaw; Doug
Glass, Pat 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.]–