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Originally published November 4, 2010 at 4:41 PM | Page modified November 4, 2010 at 8:47 PM

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Bellevue man admits to role in Nazi security unit

An 88-year-old Bellevue man who faces loss of his citizenship and deportation as a possible war criminal has admitted in court documents that he belonged to a "despised" Nazi-run security unit during Germany's occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II.

Seattle Times staff reporter

An 88-year-old Bellevue man who faces loss of his citizenship and deportation as a possible war criminal has admitted in court documents that he belonged to a "despised" Nazi-run security unit during Germany's occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II.

Peter Egner insists in documents filed by his attorney that he committed no war crimes, but he has acknowledged serving as a transport guard on a train bound for Auschwitz, where he guarded a boxcar filled with Gypsy men, women and children targeted for extermination by the Nazis.

Up until now, Egner has insisted he was nothing more than a soldier in the German army whose role in the war ended when he was shot and wounded in 1943. He now says he lied because he was "embarrassed" about his involvement in the security unit, according to the documents.

The new federal court filings, including motions by both the government and Egner, contain hundreds of pages of wartime documents as exhibits, and ask U.S. District Judge James Robart to either dismiss the government's lawsuit, or find that Egner lied about his activities and lacks the "good moral character" to be a U.S. citizen.

The new records show Egner was first a soldier, and later a sergeant, in the Einsatzgruppen — later known as the "SD" — a Nazi-run security police force that federal prosecutors say "played a leading role in planning and carrying out the persecution and annihilation of thousands" of Jews, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals and others deemed undesirable by the Third Reich.

Egner also told the Department of Justice in sworn depositions and a statement that he served as an armed guard on three other transports: Two involved groups taken to the Semlin concentration camp, where 6,280 Jewish and Gypsy women and children were killed, many of whom were gassed in a specially outfitted van.

The fourth was to the Avala site outside Belgrade, where the Nazis shot and buried thousands of prisoners, many of whom were killed in reprisal for partisan attacks on German and SS units. Those prisoners, he recalled, were gathered from basement interrogation rooms in the security police headquarters.

Egner was shot and seriously wounded in a partisan attack in 1943, according to the documents.

Egner, however, insisted he never saw or participated in any atrocities and did not know what went on inside the camps.

"The government ... has no wartime documentation that Mr. Egner knowingly participated in such persecutory conduct as serving as a concentration camp guard, executing or directing the execution of prisoners, abusing or torturing prisoners, participating in the operation of the gas van used to kill Jews, or arresting or directing the arrest of prisoners," wrote his attorney, Robert Gibbs, of Seattle.

"If they had evidence he was up to his elbows in blood, that would be another thing," Gibbs said during an interview. "That's just not the case. The government has a high burden of proof in these cases, and it cannot meet it here."

Alisa Finelli, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department's Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, said Thursday that the office would have no comment.

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Egner moved to the United States after the war and applied for citizenship in 1965. He lived quietly in Portland for most of his life with his wife and nephew, whom Egner adopted as an orphan. On his application, Egner said he was a German soldier but omitted his involvement with the security police.

Federal prosecutors say that omission is enough to strip him of his U.S. citizenship.

Serbia has issued a warrant for Egner and seeks to extradite and try him for his involvement in the Semlin and Avala executions. Egner has been listed among the top 12 most-wanted alleged war criminals by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, an international Jewish human-rights center whose mission includes hunting down the last remaining Nazi war criminals.

Egner's lawyers say that the immigration law in effect in 1965 did not include a "good moral character" clause and that the SD was not a banned group at that time.

A break in the case came when investigators found a decades-old letter in Germany where Egner had written seeking a pension for his service. He acknowledged his involvement in the security police.

He also admitted that his commander helped him flee Denmark at the end of the war by posing as a member of the German air force. He said he ditched his SD uniform, because the unit was "despised ... and hated" by the population.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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