Whatever it is that accused Nazi war criminal Peter Egner of Bellevue may have done, he doesn't want the details revealed to the press or the public. The ailing, 88-year-old Serb says he's essentially a captive at his Eastside retirement condo where some of his 130 fellow residents, some of them Jewish, ignore him. Any new information about his past that may be uncovered and disclosed in court filings prior to his trial next year could add to that stressful situation, he says, causing "embarrassment, oppression, and unfairness."
Enger is accused of committing war crimes.
"My life has changed considerably since this case began," Egner says in a recently filed statement in U.S. District Court in Seattle, where a denaturalization action is underway to strip him of his citizenship and return him to Belgrade. There, the Office of War Crimes prosecutor is preparing an indictment for his alleged role in the deaths of more than 17,000 Serbian Jews, Gypsies, and political dissidents by the Nazis' Security Police and Security Service."I began receiving phone calls after my case gained public attention," says Egner in his first public statement on the case. "One caller asked me 'Are you that nazi?' and I hung up the phone. I received another call from Serbia. After these calls I decided to change my phone number. It is now unlisted. I no longer answer the door to my house unless I know who it is and I screen all of my telephone calls." Reporters, too, have been crawling around his condo, the white-haired widower says.
"When the case first became public [in 2008] there were television and news reporters
outside of my retirement community. There were at least ten of them. One of the reporters managed to get inside of the community and was confronted on the second floor by some of my community members. They threatened to call the police and forced the reporter to leave the building."
He says he tries "to read every article in the newspaper about my case. The articles make me feel absolutely miserable and I want to know how the reporters can get by with making false statements about me. The articles are very upsetting but I want to know what is being said."
Egner tries "to stay out of public as much as possible," he says. "Unless it is necessary I do not leave the retirement community in which I live." Most fellow residents "treat me kindly, but there are some who ignore me altogether. Even the people that are nice to me have a look about them. I can see in their faces that they have doubts about me. People always ask me how it is going and I don't know how to reply."
Devin T. Theriot-Orr, one of Egner's attorneys, is asking the court to issue a protective order limiting the use and exposure of evidence and other historical data being turned up in the case. "This will serve dual purposes of shielding Mr. Egner's privacy by ensuring that the case is not tried in the media while protecting Mr. Egner's rights in a concurrently-pending criminal matter in Belgrade," Theriot-Orr told the court, which has yet to rule on the motion.
U.S. Justice Dept. prosecutors have already met with Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic to discuss cooperation in the case. In a statement, Vukcevic's office says they plan to request Egner's extradition and try him for the "organization and instigation of genocide, commission of genocide, and war crime against civilian population" from December 1941 into May 1942.
According to Vukcevic's office, Egner is a former member of the Gestapo Department IV and SS deputy commander. He allegedly took part in the killing of Jewish women and children, whom he forced into vans equipped with gas chambers. "Acting as guard on a number of occasions," Egner "supervised groups of Jews transported from the [Belgrade] Gestapo headquarters to the camp located at the Old Fairground..."
In formal papers requesting the war crimes investigation, prosecutor Vukcevic says "all of the detainees were killed in the mobile gas chambers as they moved from the Old Fairground to Jajinci, a village situated at the foot of Mt. Avala outside Belgrade. Once in the village, the victims' bodies were dumped into a number of mass gravesites."
Alice Wilson, a distant relative of Egner, says the accusations have weighed heavily on the accused. "I hardly recognize the positive, upbeat, full-of-life Peter I knew from before, with the Peter I see today." The case is "hastening his death," she thinks. "He wakes up in the morning and reads. Then he and his friend and neighbor Kim Lawson go to the gym around three o'clock in the afternoon. After working out together, they have dinner. Then he's back at home at eight or nine o'clock in the evening. This is his daily routine."
Lawson, 81, who gets around with a walker, was born in Vietnam where she married a U.S. soldier, who died 12 years ago. "I have four grown children, all of whom are married, and seven grandchildren. My family has met Peter, and they like him. My children are glad that I have Peter to keep me company," she says in a court statement filed last week.
"Peter talks to me a little bit about the case. He asks me sometimes why God gave him this heavy burden to carry. I am a very devout Buddhist so I tell Peter that he needs to be prayerful and that he should just be himself because he is innocent, and that is enough."