Shock lingers after alleged Nazi unit leader, 94, found in U.S.

Updated 3 a.m. ET June 18, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS The revelation that a former commander of a Nazi SS-led military unit has lived quietly in Minneapolis for the past six decades came as a shock to those who know 94-year-old Michael Karkoc.

World War II survivors in both the U.S. and Europe harshly condemned the news and prosecutors in Poland have said they'll investigate.

An Associated Press investigation found that Karkoc served as a top commander in the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion during World War II.

Karkoc's son, however, blasted the investigation as "notably lacking in proof or evidence."

"This morning The Associated Press intentionally and maliciously defamed our father, Michael Karkoc," Andriy Karkoc said in a statement, read out loud to reporters hours after the report was first released. "Their slander can't hope to besmirch my father's character. It only serves to damage and discredit the AP's credibility. Our family will give The Associated Press an opportunity to retract and withdraw their sensationalistic and scandalous allegations."

"My father was never a Nazi," Andriy continued.

The unit is accused of wartime atrocities, including the burning of villages filled with women and children.

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

"For me, this is a shock. To come to this country and take advantage of its freedoms all of these years, it blows my mind," said Gnasdoskey, the grandson of a Ukrainian immigrant himself.

In May 22, 1990 image shows Michael Karkoc, photographed in Lauderdale, Minn. prior to a visit to Minnesota from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in early June of 1990. Karkoc, a top commander whose Nazi SS-led unit is blamed for 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.
In May 22, 1990 image shows Michael Karkoc, photographed in Lauderdale, Minn.
AP Photo/The St. Paul Pioneer Press, Chris Polydoroff

Karkoc 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 legion and later as an officer in the SS Galician Division, according to records obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information Act request.

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.

No one answered the door Friday morning at Karkoc's house on a residential street in northeast Minneapolis.

Karkoc had earlier declined to comment on his wartime service when approached by the AP, and repeated efforts to arrange an interview through his son were unsuccessful.

Late Friday, Karkoc's son, Andriy Karkos, read a statement accusing AP of defaming his father. Karkoc became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1959.

"My father was never a Nazi," said Karkos, who uses a different spelling for his last name.

He also said the family wouldn't comment further until it has obtained its own documents and reviewed witnesses and sources.

Family attorney Philip Villaume said Saturday that the family may comment further within a few days.

"Their intention is to investigate the matter and research it, and then they'll make a further public statement," he said.

Polish prosecutors announced Friday they will investigate Karkoc and provide "every possible assistance" to the U.S. Department of Justice, which has used lies in immigration papers to deport dozens of suspected Nazi war criminals.

The AP evidence of Karkoc's wartime activities has also prompted German authorities to express interest in exploring whether there is enough to prosecute. In Germany, Nazis with "command responsibility" can be charged with war crimes even if their direct involvement in atrocities cannot be proven.

Efraim Zuroff, the lead Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, said that based on his decades of experience pursuing Nazi war criminals, he expects that the evidence of Karkoc's lies as well as the unit's role in atrocities is strong enough for deportation and war crimes prosecution in Germany or Poland.

Former German army officer Josef Scheungraber — a lieutenant like Karkoc — was convicted in Germany in 2009 on charges of murder based on circumstantial evidence that put him at the scene of a Nazi wartime massacre in Italy as the ranking officer.

Members of Karkoc's unit and other witnesses have told stories of brutal attacks on civilians.

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