Sixty-three years after the end of World War II, the hunt for Nazi-era war criminals goes on. Just last week, the Justice Department accused an 86-year-old man near Seattle of having served in a notorious unit of the SS.
Peter Egner immigrated from Yugoslavia in the 1960s, finding work in restaurants around the Pacific Northwest. He seems to have made a good impression on people, which may explain the current state of shock at his retirement community — a woodsy place just down the street from Microsoft. One of his neighbors, Maria Miloseva, says nobody had any idea.
"He moved in here like I moved in," she says. "What do they know about me? I also came from Europe."
Miloseva, who immigrated from Czechoslovakia, says all she knows is what the government says — that Egner served in the SS. She gives him the benefit of the doubt, especially because he was so young at the time.
"If you are in the army — the German army — and you are 19, you know what is it? Maul halten und weiter dienen" — that's German for "shut your mouth and keep serving."
"So, you know, life is not easy; life is not a straight, white line," she says.
But the government says Egner did more than just keep his head down. It wants to strip him of his U.S. citizenship because investigators say when he immigrated, he concealed the fact that he had been a guard and an interpreter for a special SS police unit in Belgrade — a unit that killed thousands of civilians. His lawyer, Robert Gibbs, says the government has not shown that Egner was personally responsible for any crimes.
"This guy was like a private. It just seems they're really reaching to the bottom of the barrel in terms of level of involvement of people," Gibbs says.
Eli Rosenbaum, often called the Justice Department's top "Nazi hunter," says, "Are these individuals Hitler and Eichmann? No, but in general, the victims themselves never encountered Hitler and Eichmann."
He can't talk specifically about his case against Egner, but he rejects the notion that he's just hunting the "small fry."
"To their victims, these are the perpetrators of the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes," Rosenbaum says.
As the perpetrators of the Holocaust die off, Rosenbaum's Office of Special Investigations has been asked to broaden its scope. He says post-war cases now make up most of the OSI's work — but so far, those cases have resulted in relatively few charges.
"The Justice Department has had a very strong mission of focusing on the former Nazis, which they've done for many, many years," says Pamela Merchant, executive director of the Center for Justice and Accountability, a human rights organization in San Francisco. "This more expanded mission of looking at human rights abusers from other countries is a relatively new idea, and my sense is that the DOJ is still in a ramping-up posture."
Rosenbaum acknowledges that his office finds modern war-crimes cases to be more challenging. For example, there's less of a paper trail in Rwanda, he says, than there was in bureaucratic Nazi Germany.
"We don't have much documentary evidence — if any," he says. "The modern cases tend to be witness driven. Witness testimony is often difficult to find. But we'll be filing cases, and they'll be very important cases."
In the meantime, Rosenbaum's still filing the World War II cases. The OSI currently has 15 Nazi-era defendants in court, and he says there are twice as many under investigation.