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.
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.
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.
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.
Karkoc’s story has made for some lengthy discussions at Lane’s northeast Minneapolis shop, frequented by several local Ukrainian men who know Karkoc personally or attend his church. Most express frustration, Lane said, in part because Karkoc is 94 and the war was long ago.
“My thing is, these are accusations,” Lane said. “Nobody has proved anything yet. To take on a 94-year-old for something you think might have happened, I think is wrong.”
Many describe Karkoc as soft-spoken, meticulous and still fit enough to shovel his walk, climb his roof to clean gutters and fight off a teenage mugger while walking his neighborhood, as he did a few years back.
“He’s a kindly man,” said a longtime church member and friend who took in Karkoc’s oldest son, Peter, when Karkoc first arrived in Minneapolis and struggled to get on his feet.
Semeniuk, who immigrated to the United States two years before Karkoc and said he did not know Karkoc in Ukraine, said the two men have become good friends over the decades, sharing coffee, sweets and small talk in the church hall after Sunday services.
“You get to know people,” Semeniuk said, his accent still thick after more than 60 years in Minneapolis. “I don’t believe he did something bad. … It doesn’t seem possible.”
But Karkoc’s next-door neighbor for more than a decade wonders whether the questions surrounding him can ever be answered.
“If it is true, and the atrocities and all that happened, who would tell anybody?” Gnasdoskey said. “I really believe nobody knows for sure except him.”
What comes next for Karkoc is uncertain.
Andrij Karkoc, who questions the authenticity of some of the documents used to link his father’s unit to the slaughter of civilians, said his family hopes to hire an immigration attorney to challenge the AP story, which he described as “a witch hunt.”
The Associated Press said Friday that it stands by its story.
While German and Polish officials investigate, officials with the U.S. Department of Justice won’t comment on whether they have begun their own probe into the Associated Press assertion that Karkoc lied to U.S. immigration officials when he said he hadn’t fought in World War II.
A researcher with the Simon Wiesenthal Center with knowledge of that postwar period said some immigrants with questionable backgrounds claimed Communist persecution to get into the United States.
If substantiated, Karkoc could lose his citizenship.
Even then, it could take years, with appeals, to deport him. In all likelihood, he probably wouldn’t live long enough to see the case resolved.
Over the past three decades, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations, created in 1979 for the primary purpose of identifying and exposing Nazis or Nazi collaborators living in the United States, has won 107 of 137 civil suits aimed at stripping them of their U.S. citizenship.
But with the World War II generation rapidly dying off, the number of open cases has diminished so greatly that the office was folded into a broader investigative unit several years ago.
Still, given the brutal legacy of the Nazi regime, people around the world remain committed to holding it and its collaborators accountable.
“It’s hard to imagine horrors worse than that,” said Gordon, the former DOJ prosecutor. “It doesn’t matter how much time passes, they are just as bad, and they should be brought to justice.”
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425