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Australia’s poor record prosecuting Nazis highlighted by pending Karoly Zentai case

Marika Weinberger, a Holocaust survivor and former president of the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants. (Henry Benjamin)

SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) — When Australia’s highest court soon rules on whether the 90-year-old Karoly “Charles” Zentai should be extradited to Hungary, it likely will be passing judgment on the last known Nazi war criminal suspect residing in the country.

The pending end of the drawn out legal proceedings is forcing some here to examine Australia’s poor record in cases of suspected Nazis.

Zentai is facing extradition charges to his native Hungary for allegedly murdering Peter Balazs, an 18-year-old Jew who was not wearing his mandatory Star of David in 1944. It is alleged that Zentai, then a cadet sergeant in the pro-Nazi Hungarian army, and two others tortured and beat Balazs to death before dumping his body in the Danube.

About seven years ago, a Hungarian military tribunal issued an international warrant for Zentai’s arrest, which began the process of seeking an extradition from Australia. The Australian government approved the request in 2009, but asked the country’s courts to determine the legality of its decision.

The judges’ verdict, which could come imminently, will likely end the seven-year controversial legal case. If Zentai is extradited, it will be the first time Australia has sent a suspected Nazi war criminal back to Europe for prosecution.

Zentai arrived in Australia by ship in 1950. He was one of hundreds of suspected Nazi war criminals who found sanctuary in the country. In fact, from 1987 to 1992, no fewer than 841 people were investigated by the government’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which was set up to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. It was shut down without a single successful conviction.

Zentai has vehemently denied the charges ever since he was arrested in 2005, which followed a Simon Wiesenthal Center investigation that flushed out information of his whereabouts.

He has consistently maintained that he was not in Budapest the day Balazs was murdered, contending he left the Hungarian capital a day earlier.

When first arrested, he said he was prepared to go to Budapest to clear his name. But his son, Ernie Steiner, said last week, “My father has always stated that he is willing to face questions in person in Australia from any credentialed Hungarian government investigator.”

His father, a pensioner who still lives alone in Perth, would not survive extradition, he added. Zentai’s heart specialist, who had previously said the suspect was fit to travel to Hungary, has now said that extradition would be a virtual death sentence, Steiner said.

Regardless, Efraim Zuroff, head of the Wiesenthal Center’s office in Jerusalem, said it is “outrageous” that Zentai has eluded justice for so long.

“The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers,” he said. “Old age should not afford protection for people who committed murder.

“Don’t look at Zentai and see a relatively old and possibly frail gentleman, but … [see someone] who at the height of his physical powers devoted them to the murder of an innocent young boy whose ‘crime’ was being born a Jew,” he said.

Marika Weinberger, a Holocaust survivor who was born in a Hungarian-controlled town called Kosice, agreed.

“My grandmother was nearly 90 when she died at Auschwitz,” she said. “That doesn’t do anything for me when they say he’s an old man. I don’t care; there were lots of old men and women who were taken to the gas chambers.”

Weinberger, a former president of the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, said her mother and two grandmothers perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz and her father died in Dachau.

“Only my sister and I survived,” said the 83-year-old Weinberger. She arrived in Sydney by ship in 1950, one of an estimated 35,000 Holocaust survivors — the largest country intake per capita outside of Israel.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry, which represents the nation’s estimated 110,000 Jews, congratulated the government in 2010 when it appealed a lower court’s ruling that Zentai could not be extradited.

“The surviving relatives of Peter Balazs are not looking for vengeance,” Danny Lamm, the group’s president, said at the time. “They want … justice, no matter how long it takes.”

Zentai is far from the first alleged Nazi war criminal in Australia whose case has been bound up in the legal system.

In 1988, a U.S. judge ruled there was “unequivocal evidence” that Konrads Kalejs participated in atrocities while he was an officer in the notorious Arajs Kommando, which murdered thousands of Jews in Latvia. He eventually was deported to Australia, where had earlier lived and gained citizenship; he died in Melbourne in 2001 while awaiting a court decision on whether he should be extradited to Latvia.

His commanding officer, Karlis Ozols, was arguably Australia’s highest-ranking alleged Nazi war crimes suspect. He was accused of ordering the slaughter of more than 10,000 Jews. The SIU referred its file to the Director of Public Prosecutions in1992, saying “The evidence establishes four counts of genocide.”

But the SIU was closed that year and Ozols was never prosecuted. He, too, died in Melbourne in 2001.

“It’s hard to be optimistic about a case of a Nazi war criminal in Australia, given the county’s terrible record to date,” Zuroff said. “But in this case, the government has acted in the proper manner and perhaps we will finally see a successful result.”

Indeed, Weinberger fears Zentai, like Kalejs and Ozols, may avoid prosecution.

“I’m proud to be Australian but this is something that does pain me,” she said of her country’s failure to act against suspected Nazis. “I would’ve liked to have lived to the day when at least one would be sent back to answer the brutality and the pain they caused.”