A prosecutor in Poland is seeking the arrest of a Minneapolis man on allegations that he commanded a Nazi unit implicated in the deaths of 44 Poles.
According to the Associated Press, prosecutor Robert Janicki said that “all the pieces of evidence interwoven together” in the yearslong investigation have confirmed “100 percent” that 98-year-old Michael Karkoc was a World War II commander of a unit in the SS-led Ukrainian Self Defense Legion, which is accused of burning villages and killing civilians in Poland.
Prosecutors of the state Institute of National Remembrance have asked a local court in Lublin, Poland, to issue an arrest warrant for Karkoc. If granted, Poland would have the charges necessary to seek his extradition, Janicki told the AP. Trials in absentia are not allowed in Poland.
The latest development reopens what Karkoc and his family thought was an issue settled in July 2015, when the German government determined that he wasn’t physically well enough to stand trial because of Alzheimer’s disease.
Family members have steadfastly denied that Karkoc, who could face life in prison if convicted, was involved in any war crimes and continue to do so in the wake of this latest development. Karkoc’s son, Andrij, maintains that his father fought against Nazis as a member of the Defense Legion underground movement.
“This is so offensive,” Andrij Karkoc said Monday. “How in the world somebody fighting against Nazis then becomes a war criminal is beyond me.”
Karkoc said his father’s dementia “was accelerated by this horrific persecution.”
Michael Karkoc lives in an assisted-living facility, while his wife is living in an attached, locked-down memory care unit.
Mental fitness a factor
The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s top Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff, told the Star Tribune on Monday from his office in Jerusalem that he is “very pleased that Poland wants to extradite and prosecute” Michael Karkoc, adding that “we have knowledge of the role that he played in World War II.”
However, Zuroff said Karkoc’s health is an important factor in whether he should be tried.
“If Mr. Karkoc cannot stand trial, he should not be put on trial. I don’t want to bring to trial someone who is out of connection with reality. … But if he can be put on trial, yes, I would like to see that.”
Zuroff called for an “independent medical determination” of Michael Karkoc’s fitness. “There are court-appointed doctors [in the United States] who can determine this.”
Keep in mind, Zuroff said, there have been Nazi perpetrators who try “to appear as weak and infirm as possible to avoid going on trial.”
Zuroff applauded Poland for pursuing prosecution of Karkoc after Germany declined.
“It’s high time that the Poles became more active seeking people who committed crimes in World War II on Polish soil.”
Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, echoed that sentiment in a statement, saying the organization “profoundly respects the right of Poland to seek justice for Nazi crimes committed on its soil — in accordance with due process.”
Before Poland can request Karkoc’s extradition, government officials there first need to charge him. Once that happens, Poland’s request goes first to U.S. officials in the State Department and then to the Justice Department, which would seek Karkoc’s arrest.
Karkoc would then appear before a federal magistrate judge to verify his identity and review the strength of the Polish authorities’ allegations supporting the charges.
Before the magistrate judge would rule, a defense on Karkoc’s behalf opposing the extradition can be made on any number of legal points, including any contention that his health would hinder his ability to defend himself.
Asked about potential extradition, Andrij Karkoc said, “at such time I see any evidence, I will become concerned about extradition.”
Andrij Karkoc has been asserting his father’s innocence since the Associated Press reported in 2013 that the elder Karkoc once commanded the notorious unit and lied to U.S. immigration officials to get into the United States after World War II.
The AP said in a second report that it uncovered evidence that Karkoc ordered his men in 1944 to attack a Polish village in which dozens of civilians were killed, contradicting statements from his family that he was never at the scene. The stories were based on wartime documents, testimony from other members of the unit and Karkoc’s own Ukrainian-language memoir.
Defending his country
Andrij Karkoc has said his father joined the Defense Legion to defend his country against the Nazis.
In 2002, Michael Karkoc helped fund and construct a monument in Ukraine in honor of 12 people from the Defense Legion who were killed by the Nazis after their underground activities were exposed, he said.
Germany’s investigation started in earnest in 2014, when its federal Court of Justice said Karkoc’s service in the Defense Legion made him the “holder of a German office.” That gave Germany the legal right to prosecute him even though he is not German, and his alleged crimes were against non-Germans and not committed on German soil.