This month, the Associated Press exposed yet another alleged Nazi collaborator, Michael Karkoc, a carpenter who had been living quietly in Minnesota for decades. During World War II, the news service reported, he was "the top commander of a Nazi SS-led unit accused of burning villages filled with women and children."
Karkoc's son has vehemently denied his father had such Nazi connections, but even if it turns out Karkoc, now 94, was a collaborator, it would not be all that surprising that he managed to immigrate to the United States. Despite stated policies aimed at keeping Nazis and those who worked with them out of the country in the years after World War II, many slipped through.
Estimates of the number of former Nazi war criminals and their collaborators who entered the U.S. during the hectic postwar years range widely from 1,000 to 10,000. Based on my own research, I would put the number at somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000.
Based on files that have now been declassified, it appears that at least half of the alleged war criminals or collaborators allowed into the country were scientists brought in by the U.S. military under Project Paperclip to help America fight its new Cold War.
Hundreds of other Nazi collaborators — mostly Eastern Europeans like Karkoc, a Ukrainian-born refugee — were welcomed into the United States under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. The law specified that 40% of those admitted to the U.S. under its provisions had to come from Soviet-bloc countries. Congressional legislators reasoned that not only were they homeless victims of a brutal government; they were also bitterly anti-communist, a welcome virtue as America entered the Cold War.
But the same law that opened the way for so many Eastern Europeans to immigrate — some 200,000 came between 1948 and 1952 — threw up barriers to Jews trying to enter the U.S. That meant that at the same time the country was unknowingly (and even sometimes knowingly) welcoming Nazi collaborators, it was denying their victims entry.
After Germany surrendered in June 1945, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander in chief of the Allied Forces in Europe, a top-secret directive to round up Nazi war criminals for prosecution at Nuremberg. It was an impossible assignment. The Army's Counter Intelligence Corps calculated that it had the manpower to investigate only 10% of the nearly 6 million members of the Nazi party, the SS and its affiliates.
To aid investigators, the Joint Chiefs prepared a "black list" of alleged major Nazi war criminals. Over time, the list was expanded into the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects. I reviewed one declassified edition of that registry. It was as thick as a city phone book and the print was just as small, but there were no Eastern European collaborators listed in the registry. Eisenhower had told investigators to find and investigate only major Nazi war criminals, not their Eastern European collaborators. The best the Displaced Persons Commission could do to help investigators and visa application examiners keep collaborators out of the country was to provide a country-by-country list of criminal organizations that had worked with the Nazis.
But all an Eastern European Nazi collaborator had to do was tell an untraceable lie and he was likely to be welcomed into the country. According to the AP, Karkoc told officials he had never served in a military unit and that he spent the war years working for his father and later performing forced labor for the Nazis.
The Office of Special Investigations, a Nazi-hunting unit of the Department of Justice formed in 1979, did a stellar job decades after the war of finding and prosecuting Nazi collaborators who had lied their way into America. The office won 107 cases against Nazi war criminals and their collaborators, and prevented hundreds more from entering the United States. But the team did not find all of them. And, of the hundreds of alleged Nazis and collaborators that OSI did find and investigate, many cases were dismissed for lack of compelling and convincing evidence.
As for Michael Karkoc, it seems almost certain that he will never be convicted of any war crimes, even if he committed some. He is 94 years old, and the wheels of justice grind very slowly in both U.S. immigration fraud cases and war crime trials. The best-known example of this is John Demjanjuk, who was investigated in 1993 for failing to tell visa examiners that he had served as a guard at Sobibor. Eighteen years later in 2011, he was convicted in Munich of assisting the Nazis in murdering 29,060 Jews. He died at age 91 the following year, while waiting for a decision on his appeal. Technically, because his appeal was never resolved, Demjanjuk is still innocent.
Richard Rashke is the author of "Useful Enemies: John Demjanjuk and America's Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals."