An Associated Press investigation found that 94-year-old Michael Karkoc served as a top commander in the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion during World War II. The unit is accused of wartime atrocities, including the burning of villages filled with women and children. Wartime records don't show that Karkoc had a direct hand in war crimes, though records indicate he lied about his military past when immigrating to the U.S.
"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. Gnasdoskey, the grandson of a Ukrainian immigrant himself, said he was disturbed by the revelations about his longtime neighbor.
No one answered the door Friday morning at Karkoc's house on a residential street in northeast Minneapolis, where several television news trucks were parked outside. 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 including again Friday were unsuccessful.
Late Friday, Karkoc's son, Andriy Karkos, read a statement accusing AP of defaming Karkoc. He pointed to the portion of the AP story that said records don't show Karkoc had a direct hand in war crimes.
"That's the god's honest truth," said Karkos, who uses a different spelling for his last name. "My father was never a Nazi."
He said the family wouldn't comment further until it has obtained its own documents and reviewed witnesses and sources.
Sam Rafowitz, an 88-year-old Jewish resident of the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka, grew up in Warsaw, Poland, and spent four years working in concentration camps. He took a hard line after hearing the news about Karkoc.
"I think they should put him on trial," said Rafowitz, who was born near the border of Germany and Poland.
He may get his wish: Poland's National Remembrance Institute, which prosecutes wartime crimes, said its prosecutors would investigate Karkoc's "possible role" in crimes committed by the legion and would provide "every possible assistance" in gathering evidence for the U.S. justice system. The U.S. government has previously used lies in immigration papers to deport dozens of suspected Nazi war criminals.
Karkoc's unit was associated with the 1944 Warsaw uprising, in which Nazis brutally suppressed a Polish rebellion against German occupation. Karkoc also lied to American immigration officials to get into the U.S., telling authorities in 1949 that he had performed no military service during the war. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1959.
In Washington, Justice Department spokesman Michael Passman said the agency was aware of the AP story.
"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," Passman said.
Gnasdoskey said the neighborhood where he and Karkoc live, just northeast of the city's downtown, was once a destination for displaced persons from Slavic countries, Ukraine, Poland and other countries in the region. The area has diversified over the years, but is still occupied by the last of those residents along with some of their descendants. Karkoc and his family are longtime members of the St. Michael's and St. George's Ukrainian Orthodox Church, among several Catholic and Orthodox churches in the neighborhood.
"All the time I am here, I know him as a good man, a good citizen," said the Rev. Evhen Kumka, the church's pastor. "He's well known in the congregation."
Kumka moved from Ukraine to Minnesota 19 years ago to lead the congregation, and said Karkoc was already active in the church at that time. Kumka wouldn't say whether he'd spoken to Karkoc about his past, but said he was skeptical.
"I don't think everything is correct," Kumka said. "As I know him, he is a good example for many people."
Valentina Yarr of Minneapolis, a former president of the church council, said she had also known Karkoc and members of his family for many years.
"I don't have anything bad to say about him, nor did I ever hear a hint of anything like this," Yarr said. "I'd rather not say anything else."
Karkoc worked as a carpenter in Minneapolis, and appeared in a 1980 issue of Carpenter magazine among a group celebrating 25 years of union membership. He was a member and a secretary in the local branch of the Ukrainian National Association, a fraternal organization, and voting records obtained by the AP show he regularly voted in city, state and general elections.
News of Karkoc's past also prompted anger from World War II survivors overseas, in countries where the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion was active.
In Poland, Honorata Banach told the AP she wants Karkoc to apologize. She was 20 when she fled the Polish village of Chlaniow before it was burned down by the legion.
"There was so much suffering, so many orphans, so much pain," Banach said. She and her mother returned the day after the attack, she said, to see that "everything was burned down, even the fences, the trees. I could not even find my house."
Survivors told her the Ukrainian legion did it, she said.
Rafowitz, the survivor living near Minneapolis, said he lost his mother and other relatives at the Majadenk concentration camp in Lublin, in German-occupied Poland. He said soldiers in the camp were German but that it was run by Ukrainians.
"You don't forget," Rafowitz said. "For me, it's been almost close to 70 years those things happened, but I still know about it. I still remember everything."
Menachem Rosensaft, who was born in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, now teaches the law of genocide and war crimes at several New York universities. He said Karkoc is a reminder that the Holocaust and other genocides "cannot be viewed as abstract history."
"I have every confidence that if Mr. Karkoc was not already on the Justice Department's radar screen, he now is," Rosensaft said.
Associated Press reporters Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Pete Yost in Washington, Doug Glass in Minneapolis and Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., and AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.