Minneapolis man recalls Ukrainian SS brutality

MINNEAPOLIS -- Chester Smolecki was a child when the Germans overran his home town of Rabka, a resort town in the Gorce Mountains of southern Poland.

Many of the photos in his family scrapbook are relatives he says were murdered during World War II by members of the SS Galician Division, a group made up almost entirely of ethnic Ukrainians.

"The SS Galician, yes," Smolecki told KARE.

"I remember how they dress. I remember their uniforms, the insignia."

"I remember as a child learning the horrific stories he would share about the war years, he would tell me that the Ukrainian SS were just as brutal as the German SS," Aggie Smolecki, Chester's daughter, told KARE.

She reached out to KARE after the Associated Press reported that Michael Karkoc of Minneapolis, a 94-year-old Ukrainian immigrant and father of six, was an SS commander who ordered an attack on civilians in Chlaniow, a different Polish village.

"Mr. Karkoc got to live a full life and raise a family here in America," she explained.

Aggie Smolecki is writing a book about her father's wartime experience, which included sneaking food to Polish resistance fighters and Jews.

"If he would've been caught he could've be shot, either by the Hitler youth, the Ukrainian SS, which were all over Rabka, or the German SS," Aggie Smolecki remarked.

The SS was the paramilitary organization most loyal to Adolph Hitler and the Nazi ideology, and were more feared than regular German army units.

The Germans converted the local high school in Rabka into a training center for the Gestapo, the dreaded secret police that enforced Hitler's campaign of genocide and rooted out armed resistance in Germany and territory occupied by the Germans.

"And then I think of my family members who died in the war and they don't have a voice."

Ukraine involvement

The Ukrainian combatants generally regarded themselves as freedom fighters because of mass starvation and other hardships that had occurred under Soviet rule prior to World War II.

Historians say they allied themselves with the Germans in hopes of regaining their independence from Russia and autonomy after the war. But the record also shows that many of those Ukrainians who joined the German effort were involved in suppressing the Poles.

Chester Smolecki said he personally witnessed suppression and murder.

He remembers the night the S-S came looking for his cousin Josef Baran, a Polish army officer turned resistance fighter. They ended up killing Josef's wife Stefania Baran and daughter Irena Baran.

"They killed his wife and daughter, the SS Galician, they killed them," Smolecki remembered, gesturing with his arms.

"They killed them with the butt of the gun and kicking."

He said he saw the young man who lived next door being whipped and beaten by members of the Galician SS, because the man wouldn't divulge where he had hidden an old pistol. The man's grandmother tried to rescue him by telling the interrogators where the gun was.

"But they still took him away and shot him in the head."

And there was his uncle Cheslav, a postman sent away for hiding a Jewish infant in his mail bag. The baby girl was safely smuggled out of Rabka, and is still alive in Europe. But Cheslav didn't fare as well.

"He was taken away to be interrogated, and then he was taken to Auschwitz, where he was worked to death," Aggie Smolecki explained.

Chester's scrapbook includes the letter from the Auschwitz camp administration, officially certifying that his uncle Cheslav died of "heart failure."

In fact many of the names on a war memorial in Rabka belong to Chester's relatives, including Stefan Kondys and Wladyslaw Baran, both of whom were captured by the SS and murdered.

According to an account written by famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, the Gestapo training school's commander, Wilhelm Rosenbaum, murdered an entire Jewish family in Chester's neighborhood solely because they had the same last name.

"They were our friends and neighbors," Chester said. "My father served in the Austrian army with Mr. Rosenbaum, and Mrs. Rosenbaum was my mother's friend."

Chester said he had played often with the Rosenbaum's son, and that his sister in Poland kept some of the Mrs. Rosenbaum's china and a necklace, in hopes relatives would one day claim them.

Chester Smolecki grew up to be a chemist, immigrated to the US in 1963 and raised a family here. He was surprised to learn that Michael Karkoc lives only one block from him in northeast Minneapolis.

"Yes, this is something, isn't it?" he said, shaking his head.

Associated Press Karkoc probe

Karkoc, in his 1995 memoir, wrote that he fled his native Ukraine to Poland, where he was drafted into the German Army. After fighting on the Russian front he said became disillusioned with the Germans, and decided they weren't any better than the Soviets.

He said he deserted the German army while home on leave, and joined the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion, which took up the fight against the advancing Red Army. At some point the legion agreed to join the Germans, in hopes of stopping the Soviet forces.

According to the Associated Press investigation, the attack on Chlaniow was in retaliation for the murder of Siegfried Assmuss, an SS field commander in that part of Poland. Karkoc, in his memoirs, recalled the murder of Assmuss.

But his memoirs do not mention the attack on Chlaniow, where 42 civilians were murdered.

And, while Karkoc has not granted interviews, he told families he was not involved with the attack on Chlaniow.


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