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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

He initially took pride at being a uniformed soldier, and he wrote of his excitement when his unit was included in the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

That excitement waned, however, after he saw hundreds of his comrades freeze to death in the bitter winter of 1941-42. He wrote of becoming disillusioned with the Germans, saying that “they were no better than the Soviets.”

When a man he met on a ­business trip for the army took him to the outskirts of Kharkiv around Christmas 1941 to show him a POW camp for captured Russians, Karkoc wrote that he became so upset that he was no longer proud to wear the German uniform. Some prisoners were naked and too weak to stand. The bodies of those who had perished were frozen, covered in snow.

“I believed that I was on a side of people who believed in God and honor human dignity — but in reality, it was opposite,” he wrote, according to an interpreter hired by the Star Tribune.

Nine months later, after returning home on leave, Karkoc, a decorated soldier who, according to the memoirs, was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery, deserted. He began working with the Ukrainian national underground, and by 1943, was a founding member and a commander of the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion.

With the Germans losing ground to the Soviets and retreating west across Ukraine, Karkoc and the Legion negotiated an uneasy alliance after a series of meetings, including one in a cemetery: The Ukrainians would help their tormentors fight off the advancing Soviet army, but demanded in return that the Germans stop killing Ukrainian civilians, provide the Legion with arms, ammunition and other supplies and release Ukraine’s political prisoners.

“They wanted an independent country,” said Semeniuk, who wrote the foreward for Karkoc’s memoirs.

The memoirs do not mention the Nazi SS by name, the interpreter said, nor do they address the detail of several attacks on villages and ­civilians cited in the Associated Press report.

According to the AP, one of those attacks took place in the town of Chlaniow shortly after Siegfried Assmuss, a German liaison to the Ukrainian unit, was killed in an ambush by the Polish resistance in 1944. More than 40 people in the city died in the retaliatory attack, the Associated Press reported.

Karkoc wrote of Assmuss’ death, but his memoirs said nothing of the civilian killings.

“We lost an irreplaceable, our friend, Assmuss,” he wrote.

Andrij Karkoc said his father has told him he was not in Chlaniow when the killings took place. He also said that he has asked his father to clarify whether the SS controlled and directed his unit.

The Associated Press report stated that Karkoc was a former SS officer and a commander of a Ukrainian unit that was incorporated into the German armed forces after first serving as a paramilitary Ukrainian Nationalist group that collaborated with and took orders from Nazi authorities.

“He said, ‘We were never under German control,’ ” Andrij Karkoc said.

‘I am not a Nazi’

Tom Lane was standing near his barber chair two Fridays back waiting for his next customer when Michael Karkoc walked through the door for his monthly trim.

“He likes it short — skin tight on the sides,” Lane said of his longtime customer, who he calls one of his favorites.

Karkoc quickly got to the point: “I am not a Nazi,” he told Lane.

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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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