CHLANIOW, Poland — Henryka Jablonska’s eyes well up as she recalls the moment more than six decades ago when a man in a dark uniform aimed a machine gun at her. He pulled the trigger but the weapon wouldn’t fire.
She lived, but 44 fellow villagers were killed when troops of the Nazi SS-led Ukrainian Self Defense Legion marched into this Polish farming community in July 1944 to exact revenge for an attack by resistance fighters that killed their German commander.
An Associated Press investigation revealed a commander of the unit that razed the village has been living in the United States since 1949, and survivors like Jablonska expressed bitterness that Michael Karkoc had a quiet life in Minnesota for all these years.
“What good is it now?” she said of the revelations. “He is 94 and has spent so many years in peace and surrounded by his family.”
AP’s evidence indicates Karkoc was in the area during the massacre at Chlaniow, and another one in the village of Pidhaitsi, currently in Ukraine — although no records link him directly to atrocities.
Jablonska’s voice wavered as she recounted that day. The soldiers fanned out across the village, she said, shooting villagers, throwing grenades into buildings and torching homes filled with women and children.
A terrified 6-year-old, Jablonska stood in the dirt road with her parents and sister amid burning houses as the man in the dark uniform aimed at her a second time.
Again, the machine gun did not fire.
She heard others cry out “shoot them” in a foreign language she believes was Ukrainian — words she understood because it is similar to Polish. She watched, frozen with fear, as the soldier checked his gun and tried to shoot again. Another man in black came up and told his comrade to go away because he wanted to finish off Jablonska and her family himself. He then yelled at her father to follow him — but told Jablonska’s mother to flee with her children. Hours later, her father was found dead in a cornfield with a gaping head wound and a stab wound in his chest. The bodies of two other men were nearby.
“It was something so absolutely terrible,” Jablonska told AP at her modest farm house in southeastern Poland.
At his farmstead, Stanislaw Banach, 87, recalled that his father told him and his brother, Kazik, to run into the woods when they saw men in dark uniforms torching farmhouses. Reluctantly, the boys fled and hid under haystacks. Their father was found dead, his throat slit.
Banach holds out little hope that Karkoc will be brought to justice: “He is old and they will most surely say that he is too weak to stand trial,” he said.
Prosecutors in Germany and Poland are looking through files to see if they have enough evidence to bring charges against Karkoc and seek his extradition. The AP investigation showed that Karkoc lied to U.S. immigration authorities about his wartime past to enter the country in 1949. Such misrepresentations in immigration applications have been used as grounds by the U.S. to deport dozens of suspected Nazi war criminals.
Poland’s National Remembrance Institute, which prosecutes World War II crimes, had been aware of a commander named Karkoc from old records, but until the AP investigation had not known he was alive. Following the AP report, the institute issued a statement quoting a 2005 article by one of its historians, Marcin Majewski, stating that Karkoc was “the commander of the 2nd Company of Ukrainian Self-Defence Legion which participated, along with the entire Legion, in the pacification of Chlaniow and (the neighboring village of) Wladyslawin.”
One of Karkoc’s subordinates, Teodozy Dak, was handed a 25-year prison term in Poland for his role in the Chlaniow massacre, and died in prison.