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

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

Nadia Karkoc is quoted as saying that she initially was “glad” when the Germans waged war against the Soviets because “we thought that if Germans come, they would be more human than Soviets.”

That perspective soon changed. “People were glad to see the Germans until they took off mask and show their real face,” said Nadia Karkoc, who lost four brothers in World War II — two of whom were killed by the Germans.

“For us, it was a very bad situation,” Michael Karkoc said in the profile. “We knew that if we fight the Germans, we help the Soviet Union. If we fight the Soviet Union, we help the Germans. There was no other way. We was just defending our people.”

Pillar of the church

The morning sun heats up the quiet streets of northeast Minneapolis as Michael Karkoc drops off his wife out front of St. Michael’s and St. George’s ­Ukrainian ­Orthodox Church. Within minutes, he parks his Chevy Blazer and walks through the front doors to take his regular back-pew aisle seat for the 10 a.m. Sunday service.

More than any place outside Ukraine, this 87-year-old brick building just blocks from the Mississippi River has defined his life.

Family and friends say the church gave him shelter and a future after he and his two oldest sons, not yet school age and motherless following the death of Karkoc’s first wife in a World War II displacement camp, arrived from Europe.

He and Nadia were married here. His sons were altar boys. All six of his kids attended Saturday Ukrainian school downstairs, and nearly all wed here, too. Michael Karkoc, a carpenter by trade, helped build the rectory across the street and the church hall next door “and did not take anything” in payment, said Antin Semeniuk, a 104-year-old Ukrainian immigrant who sponsored Karkoc’s move to Minneapolis in 1949.

He also served several stints as parish president and helped plant the pines, recently cut down and removed, that grew tall and bushy outside the front steps.

“There’s virtually nothing his hands didn’t touch,” his youngest son, Andrij Karkoc, said with pride.

Within a few years of his arrival, Karkoc landed full-time work as a carpenter with Adolfson & Peterson, a local construction firm.

When the daytime shifts ended, he worked odd jobs at night, finishing off family rooms or building porches and garages. He stayed active politically, taking leadership roles in Ukrainian causes, such as the Organization for the Rebirth of Ukraine.

The honors and mementos of years of volunteer work now decorate the den of Karkoc’s three-bedroom home that he shares with Nadia, 90, and a daughter and son-in-law. Among the Ukrainian artwork, Ukrainian Easter eggs and family photos is a photo of President Ronald Reagan — a staunch critic of communism and the former Soviet regime.

“He never did hide. He never changed his name,” Andrij Karkoc said of his father. While declining to make his father available for an interview, he gave a reporter a tour of his father’s home to emphasize his father’s patriotism. “It was always give, give, give. He was a leader. He worked hard. He sacrificed. That’s who he is. That’s what he’s done.”

‘It was opposite’

The facts of Karkoc’s World War II activities remain uncertain and are now the focus of government investigators in the United States and Europe.

Karkoc’s own version is told in his memoirs, which are prominent among the documents collected at the Andersen Library.

The original 170-page memoir, published in 1995 and written in his native language, tells of the civil-war-like political turmoil within Ukraine before and during the war and of how Karkoc fled his homeland in 1939 to escape from the Communists, only to wind up in Nazi-occupied Poland, where he was conscripted into the German army.

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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.”

  • 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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