Michael Karkoc is sought by Polish authorities over the massacre of 44 civilians in 1944, but his son Andriy tells the Guardian his father is entirely innocent
As the history of Nazi hunting approaches its inevitable end, it could seem anticlimactic that one of its final chapters concerns a 98-year-old resident of an assisted living facility in a quiet, tree-lined section of north-east Minneapolis.
In March, a Polish judge issued an arrest warrant for Michael Karkoc, for his alleged role as a “top commander” of a Nazi-affiliated Ukrainian nationalist unit that massacred 44 civilians, including women and children, in the Polish village of Chłaniów in 1944.
Last week, the Polish embassy forwarded that request to the US state department, where it will be reviewed before being sent to the justice department. From there, if approved, it would go to the US attorney’s office in Minnesota, where a hearing would be set in front of a magistrate judge. Age and health are not factors considered in extradition requests, and the task of Polish prosecutors will be a narrow one: to establish probable cause that Karkoc committed the crimes.
The request could be a decisive development in a saga that has made headlines since it first came to light four years ago, when the Associated Press published an exposé of the unit that killed the villagers in a reprisal attack.
German prosecutors investigated Karkoc, but dropped the case in 2015 after determining he was unfit to stand trial. This makes the Polish extradition request the first – and perhaps only – official legal action against Karkoc, who emigrated to the United States in 1949 and is a naturalized US citizen.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Polish move comes as something of a relief to his most vigorous defender, his son Andriy, a retired mortgage banker. Karkoc Jr, who has in the past spelled his name Karkos for professional reasons, is eager to see the case tried in court, and not just in the media.
“If the Polish government is stupid enough or shameless enough to continue this charade, at least at such time we will be presented, hopefully, with whatever it is they claim they have in the form of evidence,” Andriy Karkoc told the Guardian.
Karkoc brought a folder full of press clippings with him to his interview with the Guardian, most of them heavily underlined, with notes written in the margins. When he read the more dramatic passages about his father, his voice dripped with sarcasm.
He said he would not let any journalist speak directly with his father. Michael Karkoc’s only comment on the allegations on the record has been his brief remark to the AP: “I don’t think I can explain.”
However, Andriy Karkoc quoted his father asking: “How can such a thing happen in America? I fought the Germans, the Nazis tried to kill me and my family – and now they’re calling me a Nazi?”
“The horror inflicted on my father is immeasurable and incalculable,” said Andriy Karkoc. “The physical, emotional and spiritual toll was/is devastating and debilitating,” he said in a text. “The only way anyone will ‘hear’ from my father is directly from me.”
Andriy Karkoc said the accusations were part of a Russian-led smear campaign against Ukrainian nationalists, and asked whether the AP’s sources are credible and will pass legal muster.
So was Michael Karkoc the “patriot, father, and freedom fighter” his son describes, or a Ukrainian nationalist who helped kill innocent civilians on behalf of his Nazi benefactors, as his accusers have alleged?
Freedom fighter or Nazi enforcer?
Karkoc’s military history was omitted from the forms that he – or, his son says, the US army major assisting him – filled out when he came to the United States in 49. But he did not try to hide it later in life.
Much of what is known of Karkoc’s war record comes from his own memoir, From Voronezh to the Legion of Self Defense, which he self-published in 1995 in Ukrainian. He donated copies to the Library of Congress and to the University of Minnesota, and also published it in Ukraine in 2002. The cover lists his full name and his nom de guerre, ‘Wolf’.
Michael Karkoc was born on 6 March 1919 in Horodok, now in north-west Ukraine but part of Poland until the outbreak of war in 1939. Horodok and its surrounding areas were seized and occupied by the Soviet Union as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939.
According to his memoir, in 1939, Karkoc fled to escape a Soviet arrest warrant after refusing to join the local police, and settled in German-occupied Poland and the town of Hrubieszów.
In 1941, he was conscripted into the German army and participated in the invasion of the Soviet Union, but he deserted a year later after seeing the mistreatment of Red Army prisoners of war, a moment he recounts in his book.
According to his memoir, Karkoc joined what was an active underground guerilla unit, the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion. According to his memoir, they started with fewer than 100 men, but their ranks swelled to close to 600 members. They were affiliated with a faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalist called the OUN-M, a rightwing political party dedicated to an independent Ukraine.
In a key passage in his memoir described to the Guardian by his son, Karkoc recounts the pact struck with the Germans, in which the Nazis agreed to stop killing Ukrainian civilians, release political prisoners and supply the legion with arms and ammunition – and in return the legion would agree to help the Germans fight the invading Red Army.
Andriy Karkoc says his father indicated in his memoir that the Germans only had two “liaison officers” assigned to his unit, and that the legion acted independently, as Ukrainian freedom fighters defending their people from the Russians, Polish partisans, and, when necessary, rival Ukrainian groups. Toward the end of the war, in January 1945, Karkoc indicates that the legion’s remaining members were absorbed into Germany’s 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS at the Austrian-Yugoslavian border.
But according to Ivan Katchanovski, a University of Ottawa historian who has researched the relationship between Ukrainian nationalist groups and the Nazis, the bond between the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion and the Germans was much closer from the start. Katchanovski said the Nazis only released prisoners affiliated with the legion’s specific political faction — the OUN-M — and that, in practice, the legion became a police unit tasked with doing the Germans’ dirty work.
“This battalion [the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion] and many ex-policemen in this battalion fought against Soviet and Polish partisans,” Katchanovski said. “But this ‘fight’ included massacres of civilians under pretext of anti-partisan actions. They were a special collaborationist police unit under overall German command.”
A Nazi officer’s death
According to his son’s account, Karkoc says the legion had a German commander, Siegfried Assmuss, who was killed by Polish partisans shortly after they crossed the Polish border.
But he does not say anything about his unit attacking the village of Chłaniów the next day, when the massacre occurred.
While Polish authorities may have other evidence, so far, two sources, both discovered by the AP, form the basis for establishing Karkoc’s alleged involvement in the killings.
First, the 1972 trial in Poland of another commander of the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion, Teodozy Dak, who was convicted of war crimes in 1972 and later died in prison. For its original exposé, the AP relied, in part, on more than a thousand pages of trial transcript from the archives of the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw. The papers contain a statement from another soldier in the legion, Vasyl Malazhenski, who said his unit were ordered to “liquidate all the residents” of Chłaniów as a reprisal for the death of a German SS officer.
“It was all like a trance: setting the fires, the shooting, the destroying,” Malazhenski recalled, according to the AP. “Later, when we were passing in file through the destroyed village, I could see the dead bodies of the killed residents: men, women, children.”
The trial documents also contain testimony from a witness who recalled how soldiers from a “Ukrainian SS force” machine-gunned villagers and set homes on fire. The AP additionally obtained an SS document, separate from the trail files, which indicates Dak and Malazhenski were under Karkoc’s command. And later, the AP conducted its own interview with a survivor of the massacre, who recalled the moment a soldier aimed his machine gun at her, only for it to jam as he pulled the trigger, and how the men who raided the village appeared to be speaking Ukrainian.
But for Andriy Karkoc, the statements are not reliable because the trial took place when Poland was under communist rule.
“It’s a show trial, because that’s what the communist government did,” he said. “I do know that it’s evidence provided by the KGB because that’s what they do. And that’s all I need to know.”
While the trial documents point to the role of the legion in the attack, they do not specifically indicate that Karkoc gave the order.
Evidence for that came five months after the AP’s original report, when the news agency said it had received a 1968 interrogation file of a man under Karkoc’s command, Ivan Sharko.
In the document, Sharko described how his commander, “the Wolf” – the same name Karkoc used to sign his memoirs – ordered his men to cordon off the village. “The legionaries surrounded the homes, set fire to them with matches, or with incendiary bullets, and they shot anyone who was found in the homes or anywhere in the streets,” he said in the interrogation file, according to the AP.
But Andriy Karkoc says the document is not credible because it comes from an agency that was under KGB control. He said that it would not be admissible in a US court: Sharko died in the 1980s and cross-examination would be impossible.
“Seriously, that’s your legitimate source to point the finger for war crimes on my dad? The KGB?” Andriy Karkoc said. “Why is somebody pretending that the KGB is the font of justice and truth, particularly when it comes to crimes against humanity?”
Associated Press spokeswoman Lauren Easton told the Guardian: “The Associated Press stands by its stories, which were well-documented and thoroughly reported.”
At the end of the war, Michael Karkoc ended up in camp for displaced persons at Neu Ulm, Germany, with his wife and two young sons. Karkoc’s wife died at the camp, but he and his children survived, and emigrated to Minneapolis in 1949, eventually settling ina neighborhood with a pronounced Ukrainian immigrant population. Karkoc took a job as a carpenter with a construction firm and remarried. He had four more children, a son, Andriy, and three daughters. He retired in 1982, but continued to work as a carpenter for about a decade afterwards, his son said.
The controversy surrounding Karkoc goes beyond what is included in the Polish extradition request.
The AP’s reporting and Katchanovski’s research also indicate that the legion may have been responsible for other massacres, allegations that Andriy Karkoc again vigorously disputes.
For now, though, the case is focused on what happened in Chłaniów in 1944, and Karkoc is confident that his father will not die in jail.
“The Nazis didn’t kill him, the communists didn’t kill him. AP ain’t going to kill him,” he said.
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