Minnesota Nazi: How did Nazi hunters miss Michael Karkoc?

Minnesota Nazi: US, German, and Polish authorities are now taking a look at 94-year-old Michael Karkoc’s reputed past as a Nazi commander. ‘Nazi hunters’ have had major successes and notable failures in finding and deporting Nazis.

Richard Sennott/The Star Tribune/AP
People walk past the home in Minneapolis where 94-year-old Michael Karkoc lives. Mr. Karkoc, a top commander of a Nazi SS-led unit accused of burning villages filled with women and children, lied to American immigration officials to get into the United States and has been living in Minnesota since shortly after World War II, according to evidence uncovered by The Associated Press.

Before he successfully immigrated to the United States in 1949 to settle down as a union carpenter in Minneapolis, Ukrainian-born Michael Karkoc allegedly commanded a brutal Nazi commando unit that burned Polish villages and massacred civilians at the height of Germany’s World War II offensive.

If the allegations are true – and authorities in the US, Poland, and Germany are now looking into the Associated Press report – Mr. Karkoc, who is in his mid-90s, could have his US citizenship revoked and be deported. If the evidence of his involvement in wartime atrocities is strong enough, he could also face war-crimes prosecution in Germany or Poland.

Karkoc has not issued any public statements, and has not answered his door to reporters, according to news reports from Minneapolis.

To be sure, the revelations have shocked Karkoc’s neighbors, as well as the families of World War II victims living in Minnesota and elsewhere.

Karkoc's unit was in full operation during the 1944 Warsaw uprising, in which Nazis brutally crushed Polish rebels trying to shake free from German occupation.

The ability of an alleged Nazi commander to blend into US society highlights the challenges of addressing the legal and moral imperatives of the Holocaust by focusing on persecutors who tried to escape into anonymity.

The question of how Karkoc was able to settle comfortably in the US – at one point appearing on the cover of a union magazine – also touches on the complex legacy of the US government “Nazi hunters” who zeroed in on hundreds of  Nazi collaborators – from death camp guards-turned-New York housewives to the inventor of the Saturn V rocket – and whose work was hampered by political and moral questions, as well as by the difficulty of sifting through partial postwar documents, many of them hidden behind the Iron Curtain.

Before being merged with another Justice Department unit in 2006, the so-called Office of Special Investigations, which opened in 1979 after a series of sensational media stories about Nazis living in the US, located 300 Nazis either in the US or trying to enter the country.

Yet a report issued by the Justice Department in 2010 hints at how Nazis may have remained under the radar. At one point, as many as 10,000 were believed to be living in the US, some under CIA cover, according to the government report “Striving for Accountability in the Aftermath of the Holocaust.”

“There is enormous difficultly in marshaling the evidence for these prosecutions, many subjects died before investigation was complete, the cases take years to litigate to completion, and the office is small,” the report stated. “‘Nazi hunting’ so many years after the war is dramatic, tedious and difficult.”

The office also made its share of mistakes, including bungling its case against John Demjanjuk, a retired US autoworker who was falsely identified as "Ivan the Terrible," a notably cruel Treblinka guard whose duties included operating the motors that powered gas chambers.

Mr. Demjanjuk was later convicted in Germany in 2011 for contributing to the death of thousands of Jews during World War II.

In Minneapolis, Karkoc settled into an area heavy with refugee Slavs, whose small communities center around Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

"I know him personally. We talk, laugh. He takes care of his yard and walks with his wife," his next-door neighbor, Gordon Gnasdoskey, told CBS News Friday.

So far, there’s no proof that Karkoc had a personal hand in the atrocities in Poland, but there is evidence he lied to US authorities when he emigrated. According to documents, Karkoc was a founding member of the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion and an officer with the SS Galician Division. The US had blacklisted all members of those organizations, banning them from entering the US after the war.

In Poland, some of the legion’s victims at least want an apology from Karkoc.

"There was so much suffering, so many orphans, so much pain," according to Honorata Banach, who as a child fled the village of Chlaniow ahead of the legion’s advance. When she and her mother returned, “everything was burned down, even the fences, the trees. I could not even find my house,” she told The Associated Press.

The Justice Department said Friday that it’s looking into the AP’s revelations about Karkoc.

"While we do not confirm or deny the existence of specific investigations, I can say as a general matter that the Department of Justice continues to pursue all credible allegations of participation in World War II Nazi crimes by US citizens and residents," DOJ spokesman Michael Passman said, according to CBS News.

Karkoc's son, Andrij Karkoc, called the AP story "sensationalist" in a statement late Friday, and said there's no evidence his father had any hand in war crimes. 

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

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