Military Culture

Commander of Nazi SS-led unit dies in US at 100

A man accused of committing war crimes as a Nazi-led unit commander has died at the age of 100, having never stood trial on any of the charges levied against him.

Michael Karkoc was considered a staple of Minneapolis’ Ukrainian community until 2013, when an Associated Press investigation revealed the longtime member of the St. Michael’s and St. George’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church had once been instrumental in carrying out World War II atrocities.

The investigation alleged that five years prior to Karkoc’s U.S. arrival — he reportedly lied about his military service to gain entry into the country in 1949 — he had been in charge of a Nazi SS-led unit that murdered dozens of women and children in the Polish village of Chlaniow.

Nazi payroll information, military documents, and U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence supported the AP’s findings, as did a decades-old testimony by one of the soldiers who reportedly served under Karkoc’s command.

Ivan Sharko testified in the Ukraine in 1968 that Karkoc was one of the commanders who ordered the massacre of the village in retaliation for the killing of an SS officer.

“How many people were killed in all, I don’t know,” Sharko said during the testimony. “I personally saw three corpses of peaceful inhabitants who had been killed.”

Sharko also claimed Karkoc’s unit set fire to numerous homes and shot anyone who emerged.

Michael Karkoc's petition for naturalization. Karkoc was a commander whose Nazi SS-led unit reportedly burned villages filled with women and children. (M. Spencer Green/AP)
Michael Karkoc's petition for naturalization. Karkoc was a commander whose Nazi SS-led unit reportedly burned villages filled with women and children. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

Additional evidence later materialized upon the publishing of Karkoc’s memoir in 1995. In it, he openly discusses his leadership role in the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion, a detachment that not only fought alongside the SS on the Eastern Front but took orders directly from Nazi commanders until war’s end.

Both German and Polish prosecutors launched cases against Karkoc in the wake of the 2013 AP investigation. Germany, however, suspended its case in 2015 while citing the defendant’s physical inability to stand trial.

Conversely, Polish prosecutors put no age or physical parameters on its pursuit of justice and were actively seeking Karkoc’s extradition until his death. Both countries acknowledged there was sufficient evidence to convict Karkoc of war crimes.

Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, lamented that Polish prosecutors acted “with a lack of urgency” when it came to extraditing Karkoc. The 100-year-old died under the care of an assisted living facility.

“This is a typical case of a person who joined forces with Nazi Germany and was involved in crimes against innocent civilians, and he didn’t deserve the privilege of living in a great democracy like the United States,” Zuroff said in a telephone interview from Israel.

Karkoc was declared a U.S. citizen in 1959. His family has denied all claims made in the AP investigation.

“I would like to get these people in a court of law to inflict the pain we have gone through,” Karkoc’s son, Andriy, told the Star Tribune in 2015.

Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council for Minnesota and the Dakotas, affirmed to the Star Tribune that justice is now beyond mere human reach.

“God, history and the facts will judge.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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