O P I N I O N
by Efraim Zuroff
The following is a transcription of the text that appeared in today’s edition of The Australian.
At the end of next week, I will have spent 32 years as a “Nazi-hunter,” trying to facilitate the prosecution of those individuals who in the service of Nazi Germany or in alliance with its regime, engaged in the persecution and/or murder of innocent civilians categorized as “enemies” of the Third Reich. During that period, I have dealt with many dozens of cases of all sorts of criminals from many different nationalities and walks of life, from mass murderers to individuals who were charged with the murder of a single person.
To this day, my policy has always been to never let any of these efforts become personal or to turn them into some sort of holy mission. The task, I believe, is important enough and does not require adding an emotional component that is more likely to harm myself and my family than to increase the chances of success in any particular case.
I applied this approach to all of the cases which I dealt with over the years, even those in which the war criminal in question sued me personally for libel (Sandor Kepiro in Hungary) or took out a lawsuit which blocked the publication of a book I wrote (Lithuanian Antanas Gečas in Scotland). I also applied it in the cases that I was in some way connected to in Australia, even those of mass murderers like Latvian death squad officer Karlis Ozols or Lithuanian murder squad operative Leonas Pažūsis.
But there was one case in Australia, in which I found myself more personally involved than I ever wanted to be, the case of Karoly (Charles) Zentai, whose extradition to Hungary was blocked by the Australian High Court last week.
On the surface, the Zentai case should not have drawn undue attention, let alone emotional involvement, first of all, because of the limited scope of the crime. Even though there were testimonies that Zentai was an avid participant in the fall of 1944 in manhunts in Budapest for Jews who were caught outside the local ghetto and then brought to his barracks, where he was among the Hungarian soldiers who severely beat them, there was concrete evidence of only one case in which Zentai had committed murder. Not that the crimes of a murderer of only one person should ever be ignored, but in the context of a tragedy of the scope of the Holocaust, such a person’s case would not normally stand out.
Yet it was the unique circumstances of this crime and the manner in which it came to my attention, which especially aroused my curiosity and interest. Several weeks after launching “Operation Last Chance” in Hungary on 13 July 2004, I received an envelope from Budapest with a collection of yellowing pages in Hungarian and a cover letter in English. The documents were a 1948 indictment in Hungary of Karoly Zentai for the murder of eighteen year old Jewish teenager Peter Balazs, and accompanying witness statements which confirmed his role in the crime.
But it was the identity of the sender and the source of the documents which proved to be particularly intriguing. The documents had been collected by the victim’s father Dezso, a lawyer, who after surviving the Holocaust sought to discover the circumstances of his son Peter’s death and try to bring those responsible to justice. His efforts convinced the Hungarian authorities to indict Zentai and ask the American authorities in occupied Germany, to which Zentai had fled, to send him back to Budapest for trial. That never took place and in 1958, the Balazs family was informed that Zentai was living in Riverton, West Australia.
The request I received was heart-rending. Dezso Balazs had died in 1970, and it was his son, the victim’s brother, who sent me the documents in the hope that I could determine whether Peter’s murderer was still alive, and if so, help bring him to justice. It is extremely rare to receive such a plea from a first-degree relative of a victim, but such a person can significantly empower an effort to bring a murderer to trial. Imagine my disappointment to learn that Peter’s brother insisted on anonymity, because his family was afraid that Zentai would arrange to murder them. As far-fetched as that sounded, I had to respect their wish and thus suddenly found myself the main advocate for the Balazs family.
Representing Holocaust victims was not unusual for me, but I never had a case in which I felt that I personally knew the victim, his father, and brothers. Another reason which made the issue more personal, was the active efforts of the Zentai children to prevent their father’s extradition. All of a sudden I found myself pitted against them in the fight for public opinion, with the odds heavily against me. They were an ostensibly normative Australian family trying to save their elderly father from prosecution for a crime committed decades ago in a foreign country, where they claimed he would not get a fair trial. They were present at all the proceedings and always easily available to the local media. Peter Balazs, on the other hand, was at best an image, who was unable to physically attend any hearing, whereas I was a foreigner pleading for a just, but difficult to accept cause.
The ultimate clash took place in Perth in 2006 when I met three of Zentai’s children at their request, and I realized that in their mind, I was personally responsible for the predicament which the family faced. Of course it was Hungary which had asked for Zentai’s extradition, but they believed that if they could convince me of their father’s innocence although they had no concrete proof, the case would disappear. That did not take place that day or thereafter. But one comment made by Ernie Steiner, Zentai’s youngest son, made clear to me how important it was to advocate for Peter Balazs. “OK,” he said to me at one point in the discussion, “we concede that the Holocaust took place, now will you stop.”
Last week after the heartbreaking decision of the High Court, which brought this eight year long saga to an ignomious end, I shared my pain and frustration with a colleague, who asked whether I would have conducted the same campaign to bring Zentai to justice, had known from the start that it was doomed to failure? “Of course I would have,” I responded, “it is our obligation to the victims and their families.”
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His latest book Operation Last Chance. One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (Palgrave/Macmillan) deals with the Zentai case and the efforts to bring to justice Holocaust perpetrators.