A court in Poland is seeking extradition of a 98-year-old Minnesota resident believed to have been a Nazi war commander.
It began in 2013, when the Associated Press identified Michael Karkoc as a former SS commander in charge of the Ukranian Self Defense Legion. The legion burned the village of Chlaniow, in 1994, killing 44 civilians. The burning was in response to an an officer that was killed. The Associated Press report set off a four year investigation into the matter that culminated with an arrest warrant issued this week.
Polish prosecutor Robert Janicki told the Associated Press, “All the pieces of evidence interwoven together allow us to say the person who lives in the U.S. is Michael K., who commanded the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion which carried out the pacification of Polish villages in the Lublin region.”
According to evidence uncovered by the news agency, Karkoc emigrated to the U.S in 1949 by lying on his immigration form regarding his military service. In reality, he and all the others that served in his legion, were on a blacklist; not to be admitted into the United States. For his employment, he told U.S authorities at the time, “worked for father until 1944. Worked in labour camp from 1944 until 1945.”
He was admitted and has been living in Minnesota since. However, in 1995, he published a memoir in Ukrainian in which he admitted to helping create the Ukranian Self Defense Legion. He also stated that he had received orders directly from the SS. The book does not specifically mention killing civilians or burning the village. But it does mention that summer and losing the commander in question.
The relatively low-level book received no attention, until 2013 when a random historical hobbyist in London named Stephen Ankier, ran across new evidence. He stumbled across the address for Michael Karkoc in Minneapolis, which matched the name and other details of a commander in his research. He called the Associated Press.
The news agency took it from there, contacting the U.S Army and getting Karkoc’s military records declassified through a Freedom of Information Act request. They found his visa application which seemed standard except for one hole; “Verification of identity and complete establishment of applicant’s reliability is not possible due to the inaccessibility of records and geographic area of applicant’s former residence.”
The Associated Press delved further and found a Nazi payroll document confirming his membership in the Self Defense Legion. From there, they were able to confirm his whole military record. He was a decorated Nazi soldier from the Ukraine and fought with them against the Soviet Union.
His family denies the reports, and Karkoc himself is under geriatric care, being treated for Alzheimers. His only statement to the AP was, “I don’t think I can explain.”
His son, Andriy Karkoc, now functions as a spokesman for the family.
“There’s nothing in the historical record that indicates my father had any role whatsoever in any type of war crime activity,” he said. “My father’s identity has never been in question nor has it ever been hidden.”
However, until they can get him to Poland to formally question him, it’s all conjecture. At least that is what Andrzej Pozorski, one of the prosecutors in the case, believes.
“This person has not been questioned in the capacity of a suspect so it is hard to react to his explanations, because we don’t know them,” Pozorski said.
Gathered from testimonies of other members of the unit, government documents dated from the period, and some of Karkoc’s own memoir, officials have put together an incriminating picture of what happened that day.
Karkoc allegedly entered the village and ordered his soldiers to “liquidate all the residents.” This was in response to the reported killing of an SS Officer by the citizens. The soldiers burned the houses and shot anyone they saw. In addition, evidence suggests he was involved in quelling the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, when Polish residents resisted German rule.
Efraim Zuroff at the Simon Wisenthal Center in Jerusalem believes the evidence against Karkoc, and the fact that lied on his application, should be enough for deportation.
“In America this is a relatively easy case: If he was the commander of a unit that carried out atrocities, that’s a no brainer,” Zuroff said. “Even in Germany … if the guy was the commander of the unit, then even if they can’t show he personally pulled the trigger, he bears responsibility.”
The United States does not prosecute Nazi war criminals, although in recent years many have been tracked down in America. The Simon Wiesenthal Center estimates that there might be hundreds living here. They attribute this to the young age that Nazi soldiers and Hitler Youth joined the service combined with advanced medicine, allowing people to live in their nineties. However, the U.S Justice Department can extradite immigrants to prosecuting countries.
When the story hit in 2013, German prosecutors also leveled charges against Karkoc, wanting him extradited as well. But they dropped the charges in 2015 when a U.S doctor treating him declared him “unfit to stand trial.” The Polish prosecutors, however, did not care and say this is typical of Nazi officers, to look as frail as possible to avoid prosecution.
The arrest warrant was issued this week by a Polish court. This is the first step in the extradition process. It is unclear whether the U.S government will comply.
A spokesman for the US Justice Department, Nicole Navas told the Star Tribune, “[We are] aware of the allegations reported in the media and we take all credible allegations of participation in WWII Nazi crimes very seriously.”
Beyond that, she would not comment further. If convicted, Krakoc will spend whatever is left of his life in a Polish prison.