BERLIN (AP) -- A retired Minnesota carpenter, shown in a June investigation to be a former commander in a Nazi SS-led unit, ordered his men to attack a Polish village that was razed to the ground, according to testimony newly uncovered by The Associated Press. The account of the massacre that killed dozens of women and children contradicts statements by the man's family that he was never at the scene of the 1944 bloodshed.
The June story prompted official investigations in both Poland and Germany. On Monday, the prosecutor leading Germany's probe revealed to the AP that he has decided to recommend that state prosecutors pursue murder charges against 94-year-old Michael Karkoc.
Thomas Will, the deputy head of the special prosecutors' office that investigates Nazi crimes, said he had made his decision even before seeing the new testimony that Karkoc ordered his unit to attack the Polish village of Chlaniow. "We have determined the requirements for murder charges are there," said Will.
AP's initial investigation found that Karkoc entered the U.S. in 1949 by failing to disclose to American authorities his role as a commander in the SS-led Ukrainian Self Defense Legion, which is accused of torching villages and killing civilians in Poland. The investigation found that Karkoc was in the area of the massacres, but did not uncover evidence linking him directly to atrocities.
However, a newly unearthed investigative file originally from the Ukrainian intelligence agency's archive reveals that a private under Karkoc's command testified in 1968 that Karkoc ordered the assault on Chlaniow in retaliation for the slaying of an SS major. The major, slain by resistance fighters, led the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion, in which Karkoc was a company commander.
A German roster of the unit confirms that Pvt. Ivan Sharko, a Ukrainian, served under Karkoc's command at the time.
An initial order was given by a separate officer, Sharko testified, before Karkoc told his unit to attack the village.
"The command was given by one of the commanders to cordon off the village and prepare for battle," Sharko said, according to the Russian-language investigative file, which bears the stamp of Ukraine's Volyn regional prosecutors' office. "The commander of our company, Wolf, also gave the command to cordon off the village and check all the houses, and to find and punish the partisans." Karkoc fought under the wartime nom de guerre "Wolf," and he wrote a 1995 Ukrainian-language war memoir under both his real name and the pseudonym "Wolf."
According to the document, Sharko described how nobody was spared in the ferocious onslaught on Chlaniow.
"The legionaries surrounded the homes, set fire to them with matches, or with incendiary bullets, and they shot anyone who was found in the homes or anywhere in the streets," Sharko said. "Most of the houses were burned as a result of this action. How many people were killed in all, I don't know. I personally saw three corpses of peaceful inhabitants who had been killed."
The AP learned of the file's existence after its initial report and subsequently tracked down and reviewed its contents.
Other eyewitness accounts, both from villagers and members of Karkoc's unit, corroborate the testimony that the company set buildings on fire and gunned down more than 40 men, women and children. Michael Karkoc continues to live quietly in Minneapolis as he has for decades.
Karkoc's son and family spokesman, Andriy Karkos, has denied his 94-year-old father's involvement in the Chlaniow incident or any other possible war crime.
Karkos, who spells his surname differently from his father, refused to comment on the Sharko testimony when reached by phone: "Until and unless The Associated Press can provide their alleged evidence and their witness, we will not respond to your defamatory and slanderous allegation," he said Friday. Sharko died in the 1980s.
In July, weeks after Karkoc's commanding role in the SS-led Legion was revealed, Karkos questioned the statements from men in his father's unit and comments in his father's memoir suggesting he was at the scene. He was cited by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as saying his father told him he was not in Chlaniow when the killings took place, and wrote in a letter to the same newspaper that his father was no war criminal.
"There is no record that Karkoc had a hand in any war crimes," Karkos wrote. "He did nothing wrong. He never lied. He's not afraid of the truth."
Stephen Paskey, who led Nazi investigations for nine years as a prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations, said the Sharko testimony is highly credible and should bolster cases in Germany and Poland to launch prosecutions against Karkoc. He noted that Sharko did not appear to be in custody or under investigation at the time of his questioning, and that many of his statements are confirmed by historical documents.