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Australia, Hungary and the case of Károly Zentai

The Zentai extradition case reveals much about the postwar history of two very different countries, writes Ruth Balint

Ruth Balint 29 April 2009 6530 words

The Shoes on the Danube Promenade memorial to the Budapest Jews shot into the Danube in 1944–45

TODAY, THE FUNDAMENTAL problem of justice concerning the Holocaust is one of memory, and memory’s ubiquitous twin, forgetting. Primo Levi understood the intrinsic relationship between memory and justice. In The Drowned and the Saved, he described “the memory of the offence,” by which he meant the memory of extreme trauma inflicted or suffered during the Holocaust, as one of choice for the perpetrators, who can “fabricate for themselves a convenient reality.” Paradoxically, for the victims, the memories never cease, no matter how much they wish them to. Levi quotes Jean Améry: “Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured.” We might also say the same of nations. Acknowledging their own guilt for past crimes is rare, even as their victims are unable to forget. Yet, as Levi cautioned, the burial of memory leads to the withering of justice. Without a clear view of the past, there is no possibility of a just future.

Sixty years on, the centrality of the Holocaust in Western European memory seems assured. It is impossible to imagine a history of the past century without the place names that have come to describe its most cataclysmic event – Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Dachau, Buchenwald. Yet for most Europeans, this is only a relatively recent awareness; the fact is, during the war and in the years immediately following, the suffering of the Jews and other victims of the Nazis was of little interest or significance. And at the beginning of the twenty-first century, some have begun to argue that Holocaust memorialisations have become dangerously routine, with people showing signs of Holocaust-fatigue. In Hollywood the preoccupation with the Holocaust has not flagged; but in this case the Holocaust has become a trope for things that often have nothing to do with it, and “Auschwitz” a stylised, ahistorical space in which to enact generic stories of pathos, drama and even comedy. Recently, too, there has been a shift away from the experience of the oppressed towards a focus on the oppressors. We have lately become more interested in the human stories of Nazis than those of their victims.

In Eastern Europe, however, where the Nazi-engineered extermination of the Jewish and Roma populations took place, largely with the eager assistance of the local authorities, public recognition of the Holocaust is still lacking. The problem of memory is acute; after decades of historical amnesia, there seems little incentive to revisit this uncomfortable chapter of the past. The crimes of communism are a far more immediate preoccupation.

In the face of this, the question has become less about whether justice is possible – which, given the distance of time is a valid one – and more about whether justice is even relevant. Here history, rather than memory, might hold the answer. History, unlike memory, needs to be learned, and continually relearned. History’s purpose is to give meaning to the present even as it seeks knowledge of the past; justice, or the attempt at it, however flawed and incomplete, belongs squarely within the historical project of understanding. A 1987 cartoon by Ben Sargent about the Klaus Barbie trial in France remains pertinent: “It’s been more than forty years,” a younger man remarks. “Why are we hunting down a bunch of pathetic old men just to prosecute them for… er… uh… well, you know… uh… whatever that stuff was they did…?” The older man replies: “That’s precisely why.”

AUSTRALIA HAS ALWAYS seemed very far away from this history. It carries its own burdens when it comes to remembering the second world war, in which the theatre of battle and its war crimes is fixed firmly in the Asia–Pacific. Yet from the moment the first shiploads of displaced persons, or DPs, began arriving in 1947, Australia became complicit in enabling those who had committed war crimes during the Holocaust to escape retribution. In order to do so, Australian authorities participated in their own version of historical amnesia, and for the next sixty years, deliberately ignored or downplayed the evidence of war criminals living in refuge in Australia.

Since 2005, Perth man Charles (Károly) Zentai has been wanted for war crimes committed in his country of origin, Hungary, in 1944. This month, Zentai’s lawyers and his family are continuing their fight in Australia’s Federal Court to overturn the order for his extradition to Hungary. Zentai’s case resembles others in the way it has been represented by the mainstream media: as the story of an old man who has led a largely blameless life in Australia being pursued for something that may or may not have happened a long time ago. The only exceptions to this simplistic packaging of what is a far more complex story have been a couple of articles published recently in the Monthly in which Hungarian writer György Vámos reviews some of the evidence and Mark Aarons gives a brief account of Australia’s tradition of apathy when it comes to punishing those who commit war crimes overseas but make their homes here. Jane Cadzow’s piece published last year in the Sydney Morning Herald was a comprehensive account, although the rather sleepy title “Another time, another place” captured Australia’s sense of remove from this history, and the idea that it has nothing much to do with here and now.

Zentai’s case raises more than the question of a war crime committed in a distant past. It is about the story of indifference, ignorance and denial that has plagued the memory of the Holocaust in both Australia and Hungary. An investigation of this case reveals much that has remained hidden by more sanitised versions of Australia’s multicultural beginnings. The links that were forged in the postwar era between Australia and Eastern Europe via its mass migration schemes were also bonds of complicity in the project of forgetting and denial that has governed the politics of retribution and the uneven practice of justice.

For over sixty years, Zentai has been wanted for the crime of beating a Jewish boy, Péter Balázs, to death. The Budapest People’s Court issued the warrant for his arrest in 1948, and his whereabouts were always known. Neither the Allies, under whose protection Zentai lived in Germany after the war, nor the Hungarian authorities who issued the arrest warrant made any effort to bring Zentai back to Hungary to face trial, when it would have been far simpler to do so. When he applied for passage to Australia while in the care of the International Refugee Organisation, or IRO, as a DP, the Australian migration selection team was most probably ignorant of the warrant, and characteristically uninterested in details. The Wiesenthal Centre, whose request to the Hungarian authorities initiated this recent case for extradition, claims it knew nothing of Zentai’s case beforehand, although there is evidence that the Balàzs family had been trying to interest both the Wiesenthal Centre and the Hungarian authorities in it for decades.

Last year I travelled to Hungary where I was able to review the original evidence that has initiated the request for Zentai’s extradition. The brief excerpts published in the March issue of the Monthly have put some of this on the public record. What is not on the public record is where this case fits within the wider historical context of both Hungary’s and Australia’s collective treatment of the past. I also travelled to Germany, where I uncovered documents relating to Zentai’s journey through Allied-occupied Germany, and his application for migration as a DP. These reveal other aspects of the case hitherto untold, and shed light on Australia’s own contribution to the European process of forgetting, whereby the crimes of the Holocaust were revised as purely German crimes, and anti-communists regarded far more positively than anti-fascists, or even Jews.

ZENTAI WAS A CONSCRIPTED Hungarian Royal Army officer stationed at the Aréna Road military barracks in Budapest in 1944. In October of that year, the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian equivalent of the Nazis, had assumed power with the leadership of Fredrick Szálasi, giving free rein to the persecution of the Jews, a process already well advanced under the previous regime. Zentai’s commanding officer was Bela Máder and his fellow officer was Lajos Nagy; both were tried for the murder of Péter Balázs after the war and found guilty, Máder in 1946, Nagy in 1947. Máder was sentenced to forced labour for life; Nagy was given the death sentence, later commuted to life imprisonment. Evidence given at these trials prompted the Hungarian authorities to charge Zentai with the same crime; by that time, he was already in Germany. Máder’s and Nagy’s trials were part of the wave of war crimes trials held in Hungary in the immediate postwar period; approximately 27,000 people were sentenced by the Hungarian “people’s courts” for war crimes, crimes against the state or crimes against humanity, among them a number of senior government ministers.

At his trial, Nagy told of how, under the orders of their commanding officer Bela Máder, Zentai regularly went out on patrols to perform identity checks and round up Jews for interrogation. According to Nagy, Zentai already knew Péter Balázs. In his statement after his arrest, Nagy told the police, “Zentai told me that the boy and his family were old acquaintances of his.” The Zentai and Balázs families were both from Budafok, a small town on the outskirts of Budapest. The Balázs family were well known in the town as Jews and for their leftist sympathies; Dezső Balázs, Péter’s father, had his legal practice there until 1942 when the family moved into Budapest. Zentai, only a few years older than Péter, was apparently Péter’s Levente instructor for a time in Budafok. (The Levente movement was a paramilitary version of the Boy Scouts, for young men. It was banned in Hungary in 1945.) Péter was surviving on false identity papers, and had refused to show when called up for Jewish forced labour in April 1944. On 8 November, Zentai recognised the boy on a Budapest tram and arrested him for not wearing the yellow star.

What happened afterwards, according to the evidence presented at Nagy’s trial, is that for five hours beginning at 3pm, Zentai and Nagy beat Balázs so badly that by 8pm he was dying. According to Nagy’s evidence, they (Zentai, Máder and himself) saw that the boy was dying, and then went to an adjoining room and began drinking. In a macabre twist, Captain Máder decided to show off their handiwork to a number of other prisoners detained that night at Arena Road. As a number of them testified at Nagy’s trial, eight of them (some say six) were taken to Captain Máder’s rooms where, one by one, they were shown a man lying on the floor covered in his own overcoat. His breath rattled, and it was clear that he was dying. According to Sándor Révner, Máder asked, “Can you hear that music?” when it came his turn to view the dying man. “That’s the way you will go too.” Each of the witnesses said they were told the same thing. The prisoners were then brought back into the room and forced to say the Hebrew prayer for the dead, “and we said that prayer according to his instructions.” The next day, all but one of them escaped. Each confirmed, as did other officers present that day, that the man lying on the floor, according to his photograph, was Peter Balázs.

I have before me the original court transcripts, in which witness after witness describes the brutalities they endured while they were detained at the barracks. There are various references to Zentai’s regular participation in these beatings. Imre Zoltan testified that in 1944, while in Budapest as a forced labourer, he was arrested and taken to the barracks “where at Béla Máder’s orders, Cadet Károly Zentai and Cadet Ferenc Érsek beat me up for hours with boxing gloves until I lost consciousness.” Ervin Barinkai, another soldier at the barracks, remembered seeing Zoltan “gravely assaulted several times, especially by Cadet Sergeant Károly Zentai.” Another cadet, György Varsányi, stated that “it was Cadet Sergeant Zentai who did the beatings, I saw that myself several times.”

On the night in question, József Monori, another officer assigned to the barracks under Máder’s command, reported that he heard, but did not see the beating going on behind closed doors. He “definitely” remembered Zentai, Nagy and Mader being present. He went to bed, but was woken up at around 11pm and told to harness a horse and carriage: “Nagy and Zentai brought down a corpse from the office, put it on the cart, and covered it with straw… Nagy sat on the driver’s seat, Zentai beside him, and I sat on the side of the cart. Nagy was driving the cart. We drove along Aréna Road… down to the Danube… There Nagy and Zentai took the corpse and dumped it in the Danube. They waited a while to see if the corpse would come up but it sank.” During the journey, according to Monori, “Nagy and Zentai were talking about how they should not have beaten the boy so hard.”

These testimonies were taken before the warrant for Zentai’s arrest, which was issued on 29 April 1948. After the warrant was issued, Máder, already a condemned man, stated that Zentai “took part in patrols as well as in beating and maltreating Jews… He and 1st Lieutenant (Nagy) were always ready to volunteer to do the atrocities.” Imre Parázsló, another cadet, stated that the identity checks on Jews were “mostly carried out by 1st Lieutenant Lajos Nagy and Ensign Károly Zentai accompanied by the worst imaginable beatings… Zentai hit hardest but Nagy was not far behind. They hit the Jews with fists, boxing gloves or sticks, kicked them, and I often saw these Jews beaten to a bloody pulp coming out of the office moaning and crying. Bela Máder knew about these tortures, indeed, he gave orders to them.”

Hungarian journalist György Vámos, referring to the “unusual circumstances” of judicial practices in postwar Hungary, recently cautioned that witness testimonies relating to this case should be treated with care. He did not go into detail, beyond remarking that social justice, as opposed to merely criminal justice, was an important objective of the government at the time. This is largely true. The people’s courts were driven less by legal concerns than by the desire for retribution and, in many cases, revenge. Confusion, insufficient preparation and political bias were rife during the major political trials, of which there were fourteen between 1945 and 1946. “The historical responsibility of the Hungarian principal war criminals is beyond question,” writes historian Laszlo Karsai. “What is questionable, however, is whether the people’s courts were sufficiently equipped to establish their criminal responsibility.”

Yet we must tread carefully in assessing minor trials such as Máder’s and Nagy’s. It is common in the West to dismiss all postwar trials in Hungary as communist propaganda, but it was a little more complex than that. In the first place, the Communist Party did not lead the fight against war criminals in the Hungarian courts in the immediate postwar years. The people’s courts in Hungary were party courts, in which representatives from across the anti-fascist political spectrum were chosen to take part. Delegates from the Bourgeois Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Communist Party and the National Peasants Party, as well as representatives from the right wing Independent Smallholders Party, were appointed people’s judges. Later, delegates from the National Trade Union Association were also included. A professionally trained judge headed each of the courts, and a majority of votes determined a verdict. What determined the outcome of a particular trial or conviction usually had more to do with the background and convictions of the judge than with the political sway of the parties involved in the process. Moreover, the influence of the Communist Party really only increased after 1947 in the courts, and with this the number of trials dealing with war crimes or crimes against humanity significantly decreased. Karsai reminds us that in 1947, the ratio of the total number of trials to war crimes trials was 3958 to 268; in 1948, it was 4971 to 205 and in 1949, the year of the Communist Party takeover of power in Hungary, it was 2690 to forty-four.

In the second place, condemning all postwar trials as show trials may also diminish the contributions of the many Jewish survivors who participated in what they saw as a means for achieving some kind of justice. Jews were heavily involved in the judicial process in Hungary after the war, a fact that is often overlooked. To give testimony and stand witness was an act of bravery for many Jewish victims of wartime atrocities. This is not to say that these trials were neutral or devoid of ideological bias; but they were often the only forum in which survivors could bear witness, and this should be taken into account when evaluating their testimonies. In trials specifically concerned with deportations or murder of Jews, the spectators also tended to be Jewish. Journalist Geza Losonczy, commenting on the audience at the joint trial of László Endre, László Baky and Andor Jaross, the three men most directly responsible for the Hungarian Holocaust, remarked on the “complete uninterestedness and indifference that the majority of the non-Jewish public manifests towards the case,” despite the fact that this was “not a trial on behalf of the Jews” but “a trial of the Hungarian nation against its executioners.”

By 1948, however, official memory was writing the Jewish experience out of the war altogether, as the communist re-reading of history began to take shape. Fascists became, before all things, anti-communists, their enemies communists, even if their victims appeared otherwise. Forty years later, the end of communism in Hungary did not lead to a reappraisal of the Holocaust in Hungary, and to some extent the silence has deepened rather than thawed. For Tony Judt, Hungary is the prime illustration of the difficulty of incorporating the destruction of the Jews into historical memory in post-communist Eastern Europe. He uses the example of the immensely popular Terrorháza (“House of Terror”), the museum set up in Budapest after the fall of communism to document the history of state violence and repression from 1944 to 1989:

[T]he Terrorháza’s version of Hungarian history draws no distinction between the thugs of Ferenc Szalasi’s Arrow Cross party, who held power there from October 1944 to April 1945, and the communist regime that was installed after the war. However the Arrow Cross men – and the extermination of 600,000 Hungarian Jews to which they actively contributed – are represented by just three rooms… The not particularly subliminal message here is that Communism and Fascism are equivalent. Except that they are not: the presentation and content of the Budapest Terrorháza makes it quite clear that, in the eyes of the museum’s curators, Communism not only lasted longer but did far more harm than its neo-Nazi predecessor.

The crimes of the communist regime command the sphere of public debate over retribution and justice. The question of Hungarian complicity in the crimes against a significant number of its own people during the second world war has yet to be asked. Istvan Hargittai is a professor of chemistry at Budapest University of Technology and Economics and one of a few to have published in Hungarian about his own Holocaust experiences and the wall of silence that surrounds this history. He recalls that he and his generation grew up thinking “it was the Germans” who were responsible for the Hungarian Holocaust. Members of the Arrow Cross were outsiders, so the theory went, unrepresentative of the Hungarian people. This myth prevails. Most Hungarians, he says, have lived since the second world war as if Auschwitz never happened.

The reaction to the Zentai case in Hungary has mostly been mute. Even those who might be expected to be supportive of seeing Zentai go to trial suspect that the effect is likely to be more detrimental to the historical cause than redemptive. Hargittai predicts that the overwhelming image of Zentai will be that of a “poor old man” who, if sentenced, will in all likelihood become a martyr of Jewish vengeance. Nevertheless, this does not mean, in Hargittai’s view, that Zentai shouldn’t be tried. But there are others who feel that the negative impact of such a trial outweighs the argument for historical justice.

To be openly Jewish in Hungary today is still a test of courage. Many intellectuals fear that a case such as this will strengthen anti-Semitism, at a time when the rise of the extreme right is already threatening its resurgence. The fact that the Hungarian state has never acknowledged its own role in the destruction of Hungarian Jewry further complicates the issue. Without this acknowledgment, a trial such as this could become a tool for reinforcing the idea of a “few bad apples” and the wider mythology of ordinary Hungarians’ innocence and victimhood.

HUNGARY’S DEMAND for Zentai’s extradition has its own history. In 2004, Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Jerusalem-based Wiesenthal Centre, visited Hungary to launch Operation Last Chance, which offered a reward of 10,000 Euros to anyone with information leading to the arrest of war criminals. For Zuroff, such an operation was motivated by a universal obligation to the victims of the Holocaust; beyond that, Zuroff defended it as particularly significant in a country such as Hungary, where acknowledgment of the Holocaust was still poor and where, in his view, the credibility of past trials was tainted in the popular imagination by their association with Communism. Operation Last Chance was not welcomed by a significant number of Jewish intellectuals in Hungary. A heated exchange erupted in the pages of Hungarian journal Élet és Irodalom (Literature and Life) between Zuroff and the leading Holocaust historian László Karsai, in which Karsai attacked the operation as a “blood money operation,” labelling it unnecessary, unhelpful and “without a chance.” According to Karsai the operation had no merit in the cause of historical justice:

For 10,000 Euros, it occurs to someone that their dear old neighbour is possibly, very probably, an Arrow Cross (mass) murderer… Now try to imagine our 80–90 year old relative one day who is taken away by policemen, interrogated for hours, kept in remand in crowded, filthy cells perhaps for weeks or months only to be told before the court that his ninety-five year old accuser is not so absolutely certain that he had seen him on the bank of the Danube in Pest, or in the brickyard at Békásmegyer in October or December 1944… I still insist that there is not much chance of finding real war criminals… and even less of having them convicted in Hungary today. On the other hand, the odds are very good for hundreds of innocent octogenarians being denounced in this country in the hope of 10,000 euro blood money.

Karsai challenged Zuroff to look not in Hungary but in places like Canada, the United States or Australia where most war criminals, he said, had ended up after the war. In his parting shot, he used the Peter Balázs case to illustrate his point:

On July 15, a Holocaust survivor gave me a ring. He told me that he had informed the Jerusalem Centre of the name and (Australian) address of the murderer of his brother. In the last seventeen years the Centre has not even found him worthy of letting him know that the case has been shelved… (this) man…made it clear that he was not interested in the 10,000 Euros, but wanted to see the murderer brought to court.

Although Karsai did not mention the Balázs case by name, Zentai’s extradition request was expedited soon after this exchange took place.

Presumably Zentai was never a big enough fish when Simon Wiesenthal was alive and his organisation was engaged in tracking down Nazis who had committed murder and brutality on a massive scale. The Balázs files held by the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Budapest attest to the long struggle of the family to resurrect the case and bring Zentai to trial. These papers tell a story of tenacity and despair, beginning with the small advertisement Péter’s father, Deszö, placed in a Budapest paper the day after Péter’s disappearance, and subsequent advertisements looking for information about his son’s whereabouts. “My son, Péter Balázs, disappeared on November 8. High reward for anyone bringing news of him” reads one, from 1 April 1945. Deszö Balázs devoted the remaining twenty-five years of his life, until his death in 1970, to obtaining justice for his son’s murder by bringing Zentai to trial. His other son, Adam, inherited his father’s cause. I have one letter, dated 20 November 1987, from Adam Balázs to a representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre visiting in Budapest at the time, in which he includes a 1958 address for Zentai in Perth. Efraim Zuroff has since maintained, however, that the first the Simon Wiesenthal Centre heard of the Balázs case was in 2004, and it acted upon the information immediately.

THE STORY OF HOW Zentai came to be in Australia is part of the story of postwar immigration, in which tens of thousands of DPs were brought out on ships from camps in Germany and Italy to Australia. For many genuine refugees, Australia was “the farthest place,” far removed from the Europe of old race hatreds that had led to the wartime concentration camps; for others, its distance was attractive for different reasons. Many used the DP camps as a cover to slip out of Europe and avoid retribution, and Australia’s screening procedures were notoriously lax when it came to ex-Nazis or war criminals. Over one million people arrived in Australia under various immigration schemes by the end of the 1950s, yet, as Michael Blakeney writes, “war criminality was never articulated as a criterion of rejection.”

Instead, what counted towards acceptance for migration to Australia were, above all else, physical attributes: one needed to be fit, preferably young and, more preferably still, fair-skinned. Until 1960, humanitarian principles did not underlie assisted refugee migration, pragmatism did. Australia needed to expand its labour force and its population, and the only way that the government could sell its scheme of mass migration was by assuring the public that it remained committed to the principles of a White Australia on which the Commonwealth was founded. Jews were especially unwelcome; in 1947, Australia’s immigration minister Arthur Calwell announced that only 25 per cent of each ship carrying migrants could comprise Jews, who would be admitted only on the grounds of their potential contribution to Australia’s economy. As Klaus Neumann has written: “Suitable non-British settlers were young, educated and healthy and, ideally, possessed certain racial features. Australian selection teams preferred vigorous, flaxen-haired, fair-skinned and blue eyed young men and women from the Baltic countries who did not or could not return to the Soviet Union.” They were to resemble Australia’s “own kind” as closely as possible.

The Zentais ticked the right boxes: “fit worker” is handwritten across both Károly and Rozsa’s migration selection forms. In March 1949, Zentai, his wife Rozsa, their two sons born since the war, and Zentai’s older sister, Julia, were at Tuttlingen in southern Germany’s French zone, where they were interviewed and accepted by the Australian Migration Team for resettlement in Australia. Zentai’s screening card twice states that he arrived in Germany on 9 March 1949, having “fled from the Communist Party.” His wife’s card indicates the same. The accompanying resettlement card from the IRO, which establishes their status as DPs, also states that Zentai and his wife were in Budafok between 1945 and 1949, and that their son Gabor was born in Budafok, Hungary, in 1946.

Except that he wasn’t, and they weren’t. Documents held by the International Tracing Service tell a different story. Located in Bad Arolsen in Germany, the Service is a massive storage house of SS records of the death camps, yet it also holds the records created by the Allies in the displaced persons camps. Zentai’s file includes his application for refugee assistance to the IRO, and lists his places of residence from 1938 onwards: in March 1945 he was already on his way to Dietersburg, Bavaria, where he arrived, according to the information he provided, on 19 April 1945 and remained until March 1948. A document dated 14 August 1946 confirms that he, his wife, his sister and his son, Gabor, born 26 February of that year, were in Dietersburg. His son Gabor is twice recorded as having been born in Arnstorf, Bavaria. Another, dated 15 July 1947, indicates that Zentai was temporarily in Kösslarn, in the district of Griesbach.

In his application for IRO assistance, a statutory declaration states that Karl Zentai was “never a member of the Arrow Cross or any political party and never committed any atrocities.” It is signed by Zentai and three witnesses, dated 12 March 1948, at the Hungarian office (Ungarisches Büro) in Pfarrkirchen. Under “Country of first preference” the officer has typed “Canada, Argentina”: there is no mention of Australia. A handwritten statement by an IRO officer concludes: “On account of credibility of the statement of the Hungarian office and the witnesses he should be found eligible for refugee status with IRO assistance. Refuses to return home for the present regime there – no political freedoms.”

None of these official records hint at the warrant for his arrest issued by the Budapest People’s Court in April 1948, despite the fact that his whereabouts were well known to the Hungarian authorities. The warrant even lists an address: “the American occupation zone in Germany, where his address at present is… Furth in Pfarrkirchen district with farmer Jakob Schneiderbauer.” It appears that Zentai was able to make his way safely to Tuttlingen almost one year after the warrant was issued. Was the warrant ever communicated to the Allied Occupation Forces in Germany, and, if so, why was it ignored? Did Zentai know about his warrant? The answers to these questions, of course, can only be speculative. Yet the inconsistencies in the records as to his whereabouts for the four years between 1945 and 1949 seem to indicate some kind of attempt to cover his tracks. In his recent interviews with the media Zentai has never tried to deny that he was already living under the protection of the Allied Occupation Forces in Germany from 1945. Why then, did he lie about his whereabouts in 1949?

One answer is that rewriting those four years in this way put extra years between his decision to leave Hungary and the end of the war, making it easier to argue that he was “fleeing the Communists,” as so many other Hungarians were doing in 1948 and 1949. I would argue that this decision to lie about his whereabouts, clearly with the complicity of his wife, was strategic, though the exact nature of the strategy is difficult to discern. The timing of Zentai’s move to Tuttlingen and his application to go to Australia might indicate a desire to migrate sooner rather than wait longer to be accepted to Canada or Argentina. Whether this was prompted by a knowledge of his arrest warrant it is impossible to know, but the desire to hide the fact that he had fled Hungary much earlier than he told the selection officers certainly seems to indicate this.

As Zentai’s case makes clear, however, for those under suspicion of criminal activities during the war, Australia could provide an avenue of escape. Australia’s pragmatism – and its flipside, moral lethargy – should also be viewed in the wider context of the Allied retreat from the issue of denazification and punishment of wartime activities. Zentai was in Germany at the very moment that Europe’s postwar memory was being moulded, by all sides, around the notion of German guilt, in which all responsibility for the war was made to lie squarely at the feet of the Germans. This focus on Germany meant the postwar status of other countries could more easily be resolved. Thus Austria was retrospectively declared the “first victim” of Nazi aggression. With Austria’s innocence assured, the responsibilities of other non-German nationals in Europe were similarly eradicated. As the Cold War deepened, the Allies were determined to avoid alienating Austria and Germany, and this meant drawing attention away from the past. “In a process that would have been unthinkable in 1945,” Tony Judt writes, “the identification and punishment of active Nazis in German-speaking Europe had affectively ended by 1948 and was a forgotten issue by the early fifties.”

Thus Zentai was among thousands, if not millions, whose wartime pasts were being reframed by a strategic process of forgetting and denial, and whose identities were recast as refugees of an oppressive communist regime. Australia became a willing participant in the European project of forgetting and denial and over the next few decades actively ignored the presence of war criminals, even when the evidence was strong enough for extradition or prosecution. This changed briefly in the late 1980s when the Hawke government created the Special Investigation Unit to investigate suspected war criminals living in Australia: in its five short years of operation it conducted 841 investigations; three individuals were charged but there were no convictions. Since then, no war crimes prosecutions have been launched.

Australia has still not developed the legal framework or the investigatory resources needed to find and prosecute people who have committed war crimes overseas. The Wiesenthal Centre recently listed Australia as the “only major country of refuge” and former diplomat Fergus Hansen, in a recent report compiled for the Lowy Institute, writes that Australia “has inadvertently become a safe haven for war criminals.” This is certainly the impression Australia has been giving the world, and presumably its war criminals, for some time. Hansen notes that there are indications war criminals have come to Australia from Afghanistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sierra Leone, India, Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, Chile, Lebanon, Nigeria, Bangladesh the former Yugoslavia, and possibly from Rwanda, East Timor and other countries.

IN APRIL 2009 Zentai’s appeal against his extradition failed, with Federal Court judge John Gilmour finding that there was no reason why Zentai should not be extradited to face trial. The court has since agreed to a suspension of proceedings while his lawyers arrange a new medical report to be presented on 11 May. If all else fails, his lawyers can take the case to the home affairs minister, Bob Debus, where ministerial discretion will have the final say. Debus may decide that Zentai is too old or too sick, as has been the case with others in the past. If he is eventually extradited, however, the case would be historic. No one has ever been extradited from this country in a war crimes case, although not for want of war criminals or evidence.

This time Zentai’s lawyers based the justification for their appeal on the argument that the offence for which Zentai is convicted did not constitute a war crime when it was committed. The implications of an argument such as this, although not new, are momentous. It would legitimise what was effectively a fascist regime and promote the quite extraordinary idea that for Jews like Balázs, the rule of law existed and being beaten to death was lawful. A similar argument was made during the Nuremberg Trials, in which the argument was put forward that the twenty-two German leaders should not have to answer for actions rendered illegal only after the fact. The prosecuting lawyers never conceded this point, arguing that the charges were grounded in international law and what they called a common law of nations. The defence argument suggested that the accused had no idea they were acting illegally, an argument without merit in the minds of contemporary observers. The legality of the charge of war crimes was upheld at Nuremberg, and it is commendable that Judge Gilmour resisted such logic in the Federal Court.

Zentai has clearly led an exemplary life in Australia. He is the embodiment of the multicultural ideal, a man who worked, brought up a family here and settled quietly into the suburban landscape. It is not easy to watch a frail elderly man being hauled in front of the courts to face trial. He might be innocent. There are powerful incentives for simply turning our collective back on this story and letting the old man be. But are we prepared to accept, then, a statute of limitations on war crimes or crimes against humanity? Is there a time when it is too late for justice? The law, however flawed, is still the only mechanism we have for upholding human rights. In the end, it is the evidence that should determine the outcome of this case, and it is history that should inform the practice of justice. •

This is an early version of an article whose final and definitive form has been published in Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 44, no. 3, July 2010, published by Taylor & Francis. Patterns of Prejudice is available online at:

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