Michael Karkoc's World War II story stuns Minneapolis, launches global inquiries

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 16, 2013 - 1:20 PM

For decades, Michael Karkoc has lived a quiet life in Minneapolis. Now he stands accused of being a Nazi collaborator.

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Nadia and Michael Karkoc, wife and husband, taken in 1982, from a publication called “Survivors. Political Refugees in the Twin Cities.”

Photo: Thomas Perry, Courtesy of University of Minnesota

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They drive by the house at all hours to gawk or curse.

Some shout out “Nazi lover!” Others circle the block, slowing their car just long enough to snap a photo of the simple single-story house where Michael Karkoc lives.

All want to know — who is this 94-year-old Ukrainian immigrant who has long called northeast Minneapolis his home?

Is he the devoted family man, lifelong carpenter and pillar of the local Ukrainian community who built a new life in the United States after fleeing his homeland and the Communists in the chaos following World War II? Or is he more than that, a former leader in a Ukrainian military unit linked to the Nazi SS and wartime atrocities?

Karkoc was thrust into the international spotlight last month when the Associated Press reported that he was a commander in a Nazi SS-led unit accused of burning villages and killing many civilians. The news agency said records did not show Karkoc “had a direct hand” in war crimes, but said statements from men in his unit and other documentation suggest he was at the scene of several atrocities as a company leader.

The story, sourced from witness testimony, his memoirs and records culled from Nazi SS files and archives in Poland, Germany and the United States, immediately prompted a multinational investigation that may well be one of the last of its kind involving a dark chapter of world history.

“There aren’t many of these guys left,” said Gregory Gordon, a former prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice on cases involving Nazi war criminals. “But, they committed some horrific crimes. As I always like to say, the evil deeds are frozen in time.”

As German and Polish officials work to determine whether there is evidence to prosecute Karkoc for war crimes, a stunned and largely silent local Ukrainian community struggles to comprehend a complicated storyline that dates back 70 years.

“I don’t know what to do if he stops and talks to me,” said Gordon Gnasdoskey, Karkoc’s next-door neighbor. “But if he does, I’ve got to ask him ‘Did you do what they said you did or not? I’m your neighbor. Tell me the truth.’ ”

A life in boxes

Amid the worldwide media attention and scrutiny of his past, Karkoc isn’t talking.

But over the years, he hasn’t been shy about airing his politics or his passion for his native land.

Tucked away in an underground storage cavern in the Elmer L. Andersen Library on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank are eight cardboard file boxes filled with personal and professional correspondence, newspaper clippings, journals, maps and photographs that ­Karkoc and his wife, Nadia, collected over the years. Nearly all of it ties Karkoc to his war-torn homeland, various Ukrainian political committees and his lifelong mission to help establish an independent and democratic Ukraine.

Most of the materials are in Ukrainian, but a few are in English.

Among them: a 1982 profile of the couple in a University of Minnesota School of Journalism publication titled “Survivors — Political Refugees in the Twin Cities.”

The story tells of how Michael Karkoc became a teenage patriot in the late 1930s “fighting for Ukrainian independence” from Poland and Russia and how World War II, with the Germans to the west and Soviets to the east, became “a dilemma for Ukrainians, who were caught between two nations, both traditional enemies of the Ukraine.”

Karkoc tells of a Soviet agent visiting his school not long after Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact in 1939 and of how the agent encouraged students to report any information they had on Ukrainian patriots.

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  • News crews outside Karkoc’s home in June.

  • When Michael Karkoc deserted from the German army, the Nazis retaliated by killing 12 people in his Ukrainian village. In 2002, his family said he paid for this memorial to them in Ukraine. His brother Peter is next to it.

  • Ronald Reagan is popular in Karkoc's home because of his strong anti-communist position.

  • In Michael's office hang the Declaration of Ukrainian Independence, left, a bust of famous Unrainian poet Taras Shevchenko and a U.S. flag.

  • Andrij Karkoc, who defends his father against charges that he was a war criminal and committed atrocities working with the Nazi SS, pointed out items in his parents’ home to show his father’s strong Ukrainian and U.S. ties.

  • memories of a homeland: In Michael Karkoc’s office hang the Declaration of Ukrainian Independence, left, a bust of famous Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko and a U.S. flag. In the middle is a charcoal drawing of Ukrainian statesman Symon Petliura in his office. Ronald Reagan is popular in Karkoc’s home because of his strong anti-Communist credentials.

  • Michael Karkoc, right, pictured with his brother Peter, left, in an undated photo.

  • Michael Karkoc and wife, Nadia, in 1982.

  • Gordon Gnasdoskey, a longtime next-door neighbor of Michael Karkoc, would like to learn the truth about his neighbor’s past. But he also understands. “If it is true, and the atrocities and all that happened, who would tell anybody?”

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