A few days ago, news broke that a 94-year-old Ukrainian immigrant — Michael Karkoc, who has lived for decades just near my studio in northeast Minneapolis — was being investigated for his participation in war crimes in Poland during World War II.
My first impulse was to wonder whether anyone could still prove whether he was simply caught up in events, but as more information has become available, it appears that it’s likely he participated in the burning of a village in reprisal for the shooting of an SS officer and that his unit was probably involved in putting down the Warsaw uprising. None of which totally answers the question: Was he evil, or was he caught up in the maelstrom of war, as so many soldiers were?
Seen from the distance of 50 years, we know what the right decision should have been. He should have joined the resistance or let himself be killed rather than participate in war crimes. Isn’t that what we would have done?
I’ve thought about this a lot, because I am German. My father was born in 1925. By the time he was 11 in 1936, membership in the Jungvolk (the youth division of the Hitler youth) was practically compulsory. Meetings took place on Saturday mornings, and participation earned you a free pass out of Saturday morning school.
My grandmother did not want my father to participate, so she got a doctor’s excuse. My father chafed at being only one of three pupils who had to go to school on Saturdays. The next year, he put his foot down. He wanted to be out on the parade grounds with the other boys, wrestling and running, learning to march and sing. In the summer, they went camping on the Baltic coast. When he was 13, he graduated to the Hitler youth, and by 14, he had been promoted to group leader.
As he grew older, he began to dream of flying. The only path to becoming a pilot was to gain admission to one of Hitler’s elite training schools. Again, my grandmother tried to block his path, but he applied in secret and was accepted when he was 16.
He hadn’t bargained for the level of Nazi indoctrination at the school and was eventually rejected for the pilot training program, but he stayed to graduate in 1943. On the day before graduation, he heard that an SS recruiter would be coming to sign up the graduates. He could never fully explain why he ducked into town that day and joined the regular German army. “I just felt like there was something wrong with the SS. I didn’t really know what they were up to.”
The German army trained him and sent him to Italy. He was captured by the Americans after the Battle of Monte Cassino, his first. After the battle, the American soldiers lined up their prisoners. An officer asked: “Who can speak English?” My father spoke English quite well after six years of it in school.
Again, he listened to his gut. He kept quiet. When I asked him why, he said: “I didn’t know whether speaking English was bad or good.” The officer ordered the men who had raised their hands to follow a group of soldiers. They marched the English speakers behind the lines and shot them. The rest of the prisoners were loaded on a ship bound for the United States.
All my life, I’ve been grateful to my father for his intuition. It kept him from participation in war crimes as well as becoming a victim of one. And I wonder whether Mr. Karkoc lacked intuition or made a deliberate choice.
Claudia Poser, of Maplewood, is the author of “Dreaming in German,” an immigrant memoir about East and West Germany.