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One murder in 6 million

November 15, 2009|Efraim Zuroff | Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's chief Nazi-hunter and director of its Israel office, is the author of "Operation Last Chance: One Man's Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice."

The envelope was postmarked Budapest, Aug. 25, 2004, and it arrived in my Jerusalem office about a week later. It contained more than a dozen yellowing pages detailing a decades-old murder in the Hungarian capital.

According to witness statements included with the letter, Peter Balazs, an 18-year-old Jew, was tortured and beaten to death on Nov. 8, 1944, by Hungarian soldiers for not wearing the yellow star that Jews were required to wear. Two participants in the murder were prosecuted and convicted after the war, but according to the witnesses, a third alleged attacker, Karoly Zentai, was never charged.

It was a Nazi-hunter's dream -- a near-perfect package that clearly named the perpetrator, the victim, the crime and its site. I had all the necessary details to begin an investigation.

The packet was sent by a professor of my acquaintance at the request of Adam Balazs, the victim's brother, and the accompanying letter explained that the evidence had been collected by Adam's father, Dezso, a Budapest lawyer who died in 1970. The family had been informed that Zentai was living in Perth, Australia, but had never been able to confirm his whereabouts. "Please try to find Karoly Zentai, in case he is still alive, or at least inform Mr. Balazs what happened to him," the letter concluded.

The letter's arrival was particularly gratifying, as it was a direct response to a campaign I had launched in Hungary only weeks earlier. We call it Operation: Last Chance, and it offers financial rewards for information facilitating the prosecution and punishment of Nazi war criminals. Because of the diminishing chance of bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, the Simon Wiesenthal Center had to become more proactive, and with the help of the Targum Shlishi Foundation of Miami, we launched the project in 2002 in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, with promising results. Hungary was the seventh country in which we instituted Operation: Last Chance, and on hearing about it, Adam Balazs decided it might be an opportunity to finally bring to justice the man suspected of murdering his brother.

It did not take me long to find a hale and healthy Charles Zentai living in Perth, and to inform the Hungarian and Australian authorities of his whereabouts and the serious allegations against him.

To Hungary's credit, its judicial organs moved quickly to bring Zentai to justice, and in March 2005, a request for his extradition was submitted to Canberra.

It was initially approved by the Australians, but before Zentai could be sent back to Budapest, his lawyers mounted a series of technical legal challenges that delayed his extradition. On Thursday, more than four years after the initial request, Australian Minister of Home Affairs Brendan O'Connor finally approved Zentai's extradition, and the accused killer will at last be returned to Hungary to face legal proceedings.

This was an important step for Australia, which had up to now failed to take successful legal action against any of the many Holocaust perpetrators who went there after World War II. Needless to say, all these delays were extremely frustrating for us -- and no doubt for the Balazs family.

Zentai's children, on the other hand, have been determined to prevent their father's extradition.

One of the most difficult encounters of my professional life was meeting with three of his kids in Perth in 2006. I was sympathetic with the shock they must have undergone when they learned of the allegations against their father, who they said was an exemplary parent. Many children of Nazis or collaborators don't want to know what their parents did in World War II, a time when many ostensibly normal people committed heinous crimes. Zentai's children were no exception. They were willing to accept that the Holocaust had taken place, but not that their father had any part in it.

Now, at long last, more than five years after the envelope with the evidence arrived in Jerusalem, there will be a decision on Zentai's fate.

Although he is accused of only one murder, Zentai's crime should not be ignored. The passage of time in no way diminishes his guilt.

Nor should he be spared prosecution due to his advanced age. While today he is frail, we should always remember that when he was in his physical prime, he is alleged to have murdered an innocent teenager simply because he was Jewish.

We must never forget our obligation to the victims of the Holocaust. The people who carried out Nazi atrocities showed no sympathy for their innocent victims, and they do not deserve to be protected simply because they were able to elude justice for decades.

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