WASHINGTON (Jan. 16)
The U.S. Justice Department is seeking to deport an Illinois man for allegedly participating in the persecution and murder of Jews during World War II.
According to a complaint filed Monday, Peter John Bernes, alias Petras Bernotavicius, was a deputy to Werner Loew, a Nazi-appointed mayor and police commander assigned to Kupiskis, Lithuania.
Bernes, 79, helped remove condemned prisoners from jail so they could be taken to nearby killing sites, the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations charged.
During the summer of 1941, all the Jews — about one-fourth of Kupiskis’ population — allegedly were murdered by men under Loew’s command.
“Although more than 1,000 Jews were living in Kupiskis when the Nazis arrived, not a single man, woman or child survived their murder spree,” OSI Director Eli Rosenbaum said.
After the Nazis occupied Lithuania, they and their local collaborators killed some 190,000 Jews, approximately 94 percent of the Jewish population, Rosenbaum said.
The Bernes case is a relatively rare one for OSI because it deals with a local collaborator rather than a member of a police battalion, according to Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
But “the level of local participation was very high,” he said.
The case may face some obstacles, however. Since there is no survivor testimony, locals may be reluctant to testify and it is harder to find documentation in smaller towns.
The U.S. government maintains that Bernes was personally recruited by Loew and assisted in transporting Jewish prisoners from the town jail to execution sites.
The “defendant knew that Jews and suspected communist sympathizers were being arrested, beaten and shot to death in Kupiskis under Loew’s authority and command as mayor and supreme police authority,” the complaint said.
The Justice Department will seek to have Bernes’ U.S. citizenship revoked, and then will try to have him deported.
Bernes immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1947 and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in Chicago in 1954.
The government says Bernes’ citizenship was obtained illegally because no visa should have been issued to someone who “acquiesced in activities or conduct” on behalf of the Axis powers during World War II.
Since 1979, OSI said it has worked to strip U.S. citizenship from 66 former Nazi persecutors, and 54 have been deported. Another 200 U.S. residents are under investigation.