BERLIN — 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.
Polish prosecutors announced Friday after the release of the AP investigation that 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.
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 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 ranking officer.
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.
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, women, children."
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."