|By Dr. Efraim Zuroff|
It would be hard to imagine a more tranquil site for such a dramatic meeting. In a lovely wooden coffeehouse on a dock jutting out into the placid Swan River
in Perth, Australia (“the most isolated city in the world”), I awaited an encounter that I did not relish. It’s not every day that one meets the children of a man I had
exposed as a Holocaust perpetrator, but upon hearing of my impending visit to Perth, they had requested a meeting and I had agreed because I thought that it was important to give them an opportunity to present their arguments but also to explain to them the genesis of the case and the nature of the evidence against their father. It was also clear to me that they would attempt to present a refusal to meet them as a sign that I lacked confidence in the case or had something to hide.
While waiting for the arrival of the perpetrator's children, I tried to set aside my natural anxieties about such a meeting (I half-jokingly asked a friend from the Perth Jewish community about the local regulations regarding the possession of guns) and focused on the objective of explaining what was probably the most difficult message that they would ever hear, and thought back about how this story had evolved to this point.
When the Wiesenthal Center launched its “Operation: Last Chance” project in Hungary on July 13, 2004, thee were quite a few sceptics who wondered why it was necessary?? Thus, for example, local Holocaust scholar Laszlo Karsai noted that Hungary had prosecuted many of those responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust shortly after the end of the war and in any event the prosecution of elderly Hungarian defendants was an exercise in futility and would not serve any useful educational purpose.
While Karsai’s initial argument had validity, it did not preclude the prosecution of those who had hereto eluded justice, a fact which became clear, shortly after the launch of “Operation: Last Chance”. Ironically it was Karsai himself, our greatest critic, who sent me a letter that launched the case which brought me to Perth.
The letter was from Adam Balazs, an elderly Holocaust survivor living in Budapest, and it arrived with about two dozen yellowing pages that clearly were copies of witness statements from 1948. According to Karsai’s cover letter, Adam Balazs had “a lot of first-hand documents proving that his brother Peter Balazs was killed by Karoly Zentai who lived in 1958 in Australia… now he has asked me to bring to you this documentation (he does not want to get money for this!).
Please try to find Karoly Zentai, in case he is still alive, or at least inform Mr. Balazs what happened to him.”
Even thought I do not read Hungarian, it was clear to me from the outset that the information was credible and the allegation very serious. What emerged from the testimonies, once translated into Hebrew, was that in the fall of 1944, Karoly Zentai, an officer in the Hungarian Army serving in Budapest, would frequently go on manhunts for Jews who were taken to his army barracks where they were severely beaten. On November 8, 1944 Zentai, while riding in a streetcar, identified 18-year-old Peter Balazs as a Jew who was not wearing the requisite yellow star. He forced Peter Balazs off the streetcar and took him to his barracks at Arena Street 51. There, together with two fellow-officers accomplices, Bela Mader and Lajos Nagy, he beat the Jewish teenager to death. Later, together with he latter, he weighted the body down with rocks and threw it into the Danube River. After the war, Mader was sentenced to life imprisonment and Nagy to death for war crimes, and in the course of the latter’s trial, Zentai's role in the murder of Peter Balazs was revealed.
This information prompted the Hungarian authorities to take legal action against Zentai whom they sought to arrest, but by this time (1948), he had already fled Hungary and was living in the American zone of occupied Germany. The Hungarians asked for his extradition to stand trial in Budapest, but for reasons unclear to this day, Zentai was not sent back to his homeland to be held accountable for his crimes. Throughout this period, the person leading the efforts to bring Zentai to justice was Peter and Adam’s father, Dezso Balazs, a well-known Jewish lawyer who had survived the Holocaust in Hungary. And it was those documents and witness statements collected by his father, and saved by Adam after his father's death, which he had sent to our office in Jerusalem, in the wake of the launch of Operation Last Chance in Hungary.
Since the documents clearly appeared to be reliable, the question then became whether Zentai was still alive and healthy enough to stand trial, and if so, where was he living? According to Adam Balazs' letter, he had escaped to Australia and was living in Perth in 1958, but it was not clear whether that fact was indeed accurate and even if it were true, that was 46 years ago and a lot could have changed since then. My first step was, therefore, to go to Yad Vashem to check whether Zentai's name and immigration data could be found in the files of the International Tracing Service established after World War II by the Red Cross to help relatives and friends locate individuals who had been alive during the war. Sure enough, Karoly Zentai, a Hungarian born on October 8, 1921, was listed.
Even more important, his emigration to Australia on February 7, 1950 aboard the "SS Fair Sea" was also confirmed, thereby greatly increasing the likelihood that Zentai, if still alive, was still living in Australia. (Our experience indicated that escaped East European Nazi war criminals rarely, if ever, permanently left their inital immigration destination.)
Now the question was whether Zentai was still alive and healthy enough to stand trial. I enlisted the help of a sympathetic Australian investigative journalist for the task and before long we learned that a Charles Zentai was ostensibly alive and living in Willeton, a suburb of Perth. Not at the address that Adam Balasz had sent me but not too far from there. Shortly thereafter, we were able to confirm that he had sailed to Australia on the "SS Fair Sea," so that it was clear that Charles and Karoly Zentai were one and the same person. In a phone conversation with the journalist Zentai sounded "lucid and younger than 83," but his health still had to be verified.
For this task, we teamed up with Channel Nine News in Australia which sent a team to film Zentai without his knowledge. In the meantime, being certain that we had found our suspect, I sent both the Hungarian and Australian ambassadors to Israel a set of the pertinent documents with the request that a full investigation of the case be launched as quickly as possible. It took the Channel Nine crew several days to capture Zentai on film, but the wait was well worth their while. They filmed him driving his car, a clear sign that he was healthy enough to stand trial and were also able to interview him regarding the allegations against him. Zentai denied murdering Peter Balazs, which was hardly surprising (rare is the Holocaust perpetrator who confesses his guilt), but what was particularly of interest were two comments he made. The first was that he claimed to be "prepared to go back to Hungary to defend himself." The second was that he requested that no one tell his family about the allegations. Considering that he was being interviewed for a major story on the evening news, that was a bit naive if not silly, but it did underscore the close ties between Zentai and his family, something that I have often thought about since.
Shortly thereafter, in early March 2005, a Hungarian military tribunal issued an international warrant for the arrest of Karoly (Charles) Zentai, the first step in the process which would lead to a request for his extradition from Australia. When Australian Justice Minister Chris Ellison signed the request, it appeared that Zentai's date with the law would be imminent and it was at that point that I met with three of Zentai's children-his sons Ernie and Gabe and a daughter Eva-in Perth.
In retrospect, this was clearly a meeting doomed to failure, since neither side could possibly provide what the other side wanted. I certainly was not convinced by the kids' protestations of their father's innocence based on self-serving accounts of the events, hearsay testimony and wishful thinking. And I never seriously contemplated "dropping" the case. The kids, on the other hand, were totally unwilling to even consider the possibility that their beloved parent might actually have murdered Peter Balazs, and that there dark spots in their father's past was for them simply unfathomable. I tried to display a degree of empathy for them, cognizant of the shock caused by my exposure of the evidence against their father. They acknowledged that the Holocaust had indeed occurred but refused to believe that their dad, whom they claimed had never uttered even a mildly anti-Semitic comment of any sort, was capable of committing an anti-Semitic murder. And thus while they left our encounter empty-handed and frustrated, I walked away with a sense of the depth of the impact of the events of the Shoa, not only on the victims and their families but even on the children of the perpetrators.
By the time this article appears, Karoly (Charles) Zentai should have been extradited to Hungary to stand trial for the murder of Peter Balasz on November 8, 1944 in his army barracks at Arena utca 51 in Budapest.