Analysis: Australia's moment of truth

Perth magistrate's decision to extradite alleged murderer of Jewish teen paves the way for historic victory for Holocaust justice there.

zentai 224.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
zentai 224.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
The decision by Perth Magistrate Barbara Lane on Wednesday to allow the extradition of Karoly (Charles) Zentai to Hungary to stand trial for the murder of Jewish teenager Peter Balazs in Budapest on November 8, 1944, paves the way for an unprecedented, historic victory for Holocaust justice in Australia. Assuming, as expected, that Zentai's appeals against the decision will be rejected, all that will be missing will be the signature of Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus for Australia to succeed for the first time ever in taking successful legal action against a Holocaust perpetrator living in the country. This long and difficult process began 22 years ago when the Australian government initiated the Menzies Review to investigate allegations that numerous East European Nazi collaborators had gained entry to the country posing as innocent refugees from Communism. The Review confirmed these claims and recommended that legal action be taken against these criminals. In 1989 parliament passed an amendment allowing the prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators in Australian courts. But for variety of reasons, all three prosecutions mounted by Australia's "Special Investigations Unit" failed and the prosecution effort for all practical purposes was shut down on June 30, 1992. This was particularly unfortunate since the prospects of successes at this point had become much better due to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the greater access to witnesses and documents regarding the crimes committed by the suspects living in Australia, all of whom hailed from Eastern Europe. But the initial outlay of A$19 million for the operations of the unit and its initial failures evoked considerable political opposition and led to its premature closure. Since that fateful decision, Australia has had two concrete opportunities to act against Nazi war criminals residing in the country. In both cases, the initiative came from the country in which the suspect committed his crimes. The first was that of Konrad Kalejs, who served as an officer in the infamous Arajs Kommando, a Latvian murder squad that killed at least 30,000 Jews in Latvia alone. (It was later sent to Belarus to assist in the murder of Jews there.) At the end of World War II Kalejs moved to Denmark, and he emigrated to Australia in 1950, where he initially served as an immigration screening officer. He later moved to the United States, Canada and Great Britain, all of which expelled him when his wartime activities in the Arajs Kommando were revealed, only to return to Australia each time. When Latvia finally was convinced to ask for his extradition, which was approved in an Australian court, it appeared that justice would be achieved. But Kalejs died in Melbourne in 2001 before he could be extradited, one of many Nazi killers who escaped to Australia who were able to elude justice. That leave the case of Karoly Zentai who was discovered in late 2004 living in Perth, after evidence of his crimes was sent to the Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem by the brother of his victim. Zentai served in a unit of the Hungarian army that was active in hunts for Jews in Budapest in the fall of 1944 (when the fascist Arrow Cross came to power) and played a major role in the murder of 18 year old Peter Balazs whom he caught without the requisite yellow star on a streetcar in Budapest on November 8, 1944. (He and Zentai grew up in the suburb of Budafolk, so the latter knew that the former was Jewish.) Shortly after I submitted the evidence of Zentai's crimes to prosecutors in Budapest, Hungary asked for his extradition to stand trial. But Zentai has been able until today to postpone his extradition via a variety of legal maneuvers that had absolutely nothing to do with his case. Now that Magistrate Lane has ruled that the extradition can proceed, the final moment of truth has arrived, not only for Zentai but also for Australia. Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.