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.
Michael Karkoc (94) told American authorities in 1949 that he had performed no military service during World War II, concealing his work as an officer and founding member of the SS-led Ukrainian Self Defence Legion and later as an officer in the SS Galician Division, according to records obtained by the Associated Press agency through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Galician Division and a Ukrainian nationalist organisation he served in were both on a secret American government blacklist of organisations whose members were forbidden from entering the United States at the time.
Though records do not show that Karkoc had a direct hand in war crimes, statements from men in his unit and other documentation confirm the Ukrainian company he commanded massacred civilians, and suggest that Karkoc was at the scene of these atrocities as the company leader. Nazi SS files say he and his unit were also involved in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, in which the Nazis brutally suppressed a Polish rebellion against German occupation.
The evidence of Karkoc's wartime activities uncovered by Associated Press has prompted German authorities to express interest in exploring whether there's enough to prosecute.
Efraim Zuroff, the lead Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, said he expects that the evidence showing Karkoc lied to American officials and that his unit carried out atrocities is strong enough for deportation and war-crimes prosecution in Germany or Poland.
"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," Mr 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."
Karkoc now lives in a modest house in Minneapolis in an area with a significant Ukrainian population. Even at his advanced age, he came to the door without help of a cane or a walker. He would not comment on his wartime service for Nazi Germany. "I don't think I can explain," he said.
Members of his unit and other witnesses have told stories of brutal attacks on civilians. One of Karkoc's men, Vasyl Malazhenski, told Soviet investigators that in 1944 the unit was directed to "liquidate all the residents" of the village of Chlaniow in a reprisal attack for the killing of a German SS officer.
"It was all like a trance: setting the fires, the shooting, the destroying," Mr Malazhenski recalled, according to the 1967 statement found by the AP in the archives of Warsaw's state-run Institute of National Remembrance.
"Later, when we were passing in file through the destroyed village," Mr Malazhenski said, "I could see the dead bodies of the killed residents – men, women, children."
Karkoc's name surfaced when a retired clinical pharmacologist who took up Nazi war crimes research in his free time came across it while looking into members of the SS Galician Division who emigrated to Britain. He tipped off AP when an internet search showed an address for Karkoc in Minnesota.
Karkoc, an ethnic Ukrainian, was born in the city of Lutsk in 1919, according to details he provided American officials. He joined the regular German army after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and fought on the Eastern Front in Ukraine and Russia.
Following the war, Karkoc ended up in a camp for displaced people in Germany. Documents indicate his wife died in 1948, a year before he and their two boys went to the US. After he arrived in Minneapolis, he remarried and had four more children.