MINNEAPOLIS -- The Associated Press story alleging that a 94-year-old Minneapolis man was part of a military unit that committed war crimes in Europe has brought renewed focus to those Ukrainian fighters.
The AP reported Friday that Michael Karkoc, a Ukrainian immigrant, was a commander of the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion. The group collaborated with Germany in suppressing civilian resistance inside occupied occupied Poland during World War II.
"This was a unit of volunteers, and people were volunteering ideologically not because they were Nazis but because they were Ukrainian nationalists," Ofer Ashkenazi, an expert on modern European history at Hebrew University told KARE.
Ashkenazi, who is a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota, said the Ukrainian fighters hoped to shake off Soviet oppression and sided with the Germans after being told the country would regain its autonomy.
"They formed these units under the command of the SS, or the Waffen-SS, and basically did whatever the SS wanted them to do."
The AP story maintains Karkoc eventually became an officer in the SS Galician Division, which was formed from remnants of the Self Defense Legion in the closing year of the war.
The AP's investigation found no record that Karkoc directly committed any war crimes, but said he commanded a unit that was known to massacre civilians in Poland.
"One example was a reprisal killing for the partisan attack that killed the SS commander of unit," David Rising, an AP reporter based in Berlin told KARE Friday.
"The SS commander was killed one day, the village was wiped out the next day, 44 women and children in the village."
The news prompted the Polish and German governments to call for an investigation into the matter, and some groups area already calling on the United States to deport Karkoc.
Karkoc, who became a carpenter after coming to Minnesota in 1949, has been active in the Ukrainian community in Minneapolis. He is a regular at a Ukranian Orthodox Church on the city's northeast side.
One of his six children, Andrij Karkoc, issued a statement Friday night calling the AP story slanderous.
"My father was never a Nazi," Karkoc told KARE in a prepared statement.
"As for the rest of AP's story, it's allegation, hearsay, implication, association or conjecture and notably lacking in proof or evidence."
Service in Legion
When Karkoc applied for entry into this country he told the US Army he hadn't served in the military, according the documents uncovered by the Associated Press.
But in 1995 he published a 170-page memoir, written in Ukrainian, about his experiences in wartime Poland and Ukraine. The title, as translated to English in the Library of Congress catalogue, is "From Voronizh to the Ukrainian Self Defence Legion."
The Associated Press reported that Karkoc, in his memoir, said he was a founding member of the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion and part of the Galician Division, which is regarded as part of the SS.
"In his memoir he did not talk about the massacre of the village," Rising told KARE.
"But he talked about the killing of the League's commander, Siegfried Assmuss. And that is what prompted the attack on the village of Pidhaitsi."
The AP bases that contention on statements other members of the unit provided to Soviet investigators years after the war. Again, the AP did not interview any witnesses that could place Karkoc at the scene of the massacre.
Reprisals against Polish
Professor Ashkenazi said the history of that conflict becomes very complicated when one drills down to the level of who ordered individual attacks and their motives for doing so.
He noted that by 1943, when many of the attacks occurred, much of the Jewish population in the Ukraine and Poland had already been imprisoned or killed during the German invasion.
"There were Jewish victims, but at that point in the war the victims were mostly villagers suspected of helping the partisans who fought against the Nazis," Ashkenazi said.
"The victims by then were mostly ethnic Poles, because there were Ukrainian nationalists who thought the Ukraine should be 'pure' of Poles."
Some of Karkoc's defenders said he grew up at a time when millions starved to death under Soviet rule, and that the suffering was especially harsh in the Ukraine. Fighting in the Legion was perceived by many of the volunteers as a battle for independence.
Andrij Karkoc, the son who issued the family's statement, said he would not answer questions or go beyond the scope of that scripted message for the time being.
He said members of the family had hired Twin Cities attorney Phillip Villaume to represent their father.
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