Until Thursday, Ukrainian immigrant Michael Karkoc lived in near anonymity in a tidy bungalow shaded by locust trees in northeast Minneapolis.

By Friday morning, much of the world knew who he was and where he lived.

The 94-year-old retired carpenter and father of six was a former officer in the SS, the Associated Press reported. Karkoc’s unit was incorporated into the German armed forces after it first served as a paramilitary Ukrainian Nationalist group that collaborated with Nazi authorities.

That unit, according to AP research, was responsible for burning villages and killing many civilians in reprisals.

The AP also reported that documents place Karkoc in Warsaw at the time of the 1944 national uprising that was savagely put down by the Germans.

The news gained worldwide attention, with German and Polish authorities expressing interest in pursuing war crimes investigations. Karkoc could potentially lose his citizenship if it can be proved that he lied to U.S. authorities about his past when he came to the country.

Karkoc’s youngest son, Andrij Karkoc, issued a sharp statement late Friday challenging the story and defending his father.

Calling the AP report “sensationalist and scandalous,” he said it was “notably lacking in proof or evidence.” He pointed out that the report said there was no evidence of his father taking “a direct hand in war crimes.”

“That’s the God’s honest truth,” he said. “My father was never a Nazi.”

The elder Karkoc did not accompany his son. The AP said in its report that he talked briefly with a reporter but wouldn’t comment on his wartime activities.

“I don’t think I can explain,’’ the AP quoted the elder Karkoc as saying.

The AP cited American and German war records in documenting Karkoc’s service in the Nazi-led organizations.

According to the AP, Karkoc also published a Ukrainian-language memoir in 1995 in which he stated that he helped found the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion in 1943 in collaboration with the Nazis’ intelligence agency, the SD, to fight for Germany. He wrote that he served as a company commander in the unit through the war’s end.

The Self Defense Legion was incorporated into a division of Ukrainian SS volunteers near the end of the war. That unit surrendered to Allied forces in Austria and was spared deportation to the Soviet Union, as happened to many others from Soviet territory who fought with the Germans.

By early Friday, the 700 block of NE. 5th Street was filled with reporters and curious onlookers reacting to the news. A man who answered the door at the house wouldn’t identify himself but ordered reporters off the property.

Neighbors said they knew Karkoc as an active member of his Ukrainian Orthodox Church who, despite his age, was still fit enough to take regular walks. His accent and heritage didn’t stand out along streets filled with Eastern European immigrants and their descendants.

All said they had no idea of his alleged past.

“I couldn’t believe it because it just doesn’t appear to me that he would be … whatever that would be,” said Gordon Gnasdoskey, a next-door neighbor who has known Karkoc and his family for years.

It was the sentiment of several neighbors, who either expressed sheer surprise or were dedicated to protecting the Karkocs’ privacy.

Myron Kudanovych gasped audibly at the news. He grew up with Karkoc’s family, including his six children, and has known them since the late 1960s.

“We’re Ukrainian, so I know this guy personally,” said Kudanovych, 55, who said his own grandfather and uncle were killed by Nazis. Kudanovych said Karkoc is an active member of St. Michael’s and St. George’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, just a few blocks from his house.

“I got along with him. Matter of fact, he’d be walking with his wife down the street here and we’d sit down and just talk,” Kudanovych said. “I never knew anything about any type of commotion like this. I’ve never heard about this Nazi stuff.”

By all accounts, Karkoc lived a quiet life here.

After the war, Karkoc ended up in a camp for displaced people in Neu Ulm, Germany, according to documents obtained from the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany. The documents indicate that his wife died in 1948, a year before he and their two young boys — born in 1945 and 1946 — immigrated to the United States.

After he arrived in Minneapolis, he remarried and had four children, the last born in 1966.

Karkoc told U.S. officials that he was a carpenter and that he had worked for his father and in a labor camp during the war, not in any military role.

Records indicate he worked for a nationwide construction company in Minneapolis.

Karkoc has been involved in the community, including in the Ukrainian National Association, for decades. He was identified in a 2002 article in a Ukrainian-American publication as a “longtime UNA activist.”

Records show he has lived at his brick-and-stucco home, which he rents, for the past dozen years.

Phil Cross usually walks with his young daughters down NE. 5th Street on the way to the park and called Karkoc’s home “one of those houses that kind of falls into the background.” He remembered seeing an elderly man working in the yard a few times.

Since the story broke, he said, neighbors have been discussing what, if anything, should happen to Karkoc if the allegations are true.

“He still has to pay for what he did,” he said. “But I’m not really sure what.”

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. abby.simons@startribune.com 612-673-4921