Nazi perpetrators must face justice

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The efforts to hold Holocaust perpetrators accountable are indeed in their final phase. Still, with legal action of various forms having been taken recently against four of the 10 Nazi war criminals on the Wiesenthal Center’s "Most Wanted‚" list, it seems clear that the push for justice will continue — and register more victories than initially expected.

The individuals in question — Ukrainian Sobibor guard Ivan Demjanjuk (No. 1); Hungarian gendarmerie officer Dr. Sandor Kepiro (2); Dutch SS hit man Heinrich Boere (6); and Hungarian army officer Karoly (Charles) Zentai (7) — represent a cross-section of the suspects still unprosecuted who were involved in a variety of crimes ranging from accessory to mass murder (Demjanjuk and Kepiro) to carrying out the execution of individuals (Boere and Zentai).

While Zentai is incarcerated in Perth, Australia, pending approval of his extradition to Hungary, the Demjanjuk trial has started in Munich and Boere is on trial in Aachen, Germany. Kepiro, whose passport was seized by the authorities, is
facing the prospect of prosecution in Budapest.

I have a special interest in the two Hungarian cases because they were discovered in the framework of the Wiesental Center’s "Operation: Last Chance," a project launched in 2002 with the generous assistance of the Targum Shlishi Foundation of Miami founded and headed by Aryeh Rubin.

Cognizant of the diminishing prospects for the prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators, Aryeh suggested offering financial rewards for information that would lead to the prosecution and punishment of Nazi war criminals — and helped launch the project by providing a generous grant. Our primary objective was to try to discover suspects who had been unknown to us and to the authorities.

Our initial focus was on post-communist Europe, where local collaboration with the Nazis had been particularly lethal and extensive, and where Cold War politics had prevented an honest accounting with the past from 1945 until 1991. In that respect, we were encouraged by the conviction in 1999 of former Jasenovac commander Dinko Sakic, whose extradition from Argentina and prosecution in Zagreb we had helped facilitate, and whose trial had a significant impact on Holocaust issues in Croatia.

Over the past seven years, we were contacted by thousands of people from all over the world and received the names of more than 530 suspects from 25 countries. About 100 of the names eventually were turned over to the local prosecutors after we verified that the allegation was credible and the suspect was alive, healthy enough to stand trial and had never been prosecuted.

Among the most serious cases were those of Kepiro and Zentai. Kepiro was among the officers who organized the massacre by Hungarian forces of at least 1,300 civilians (mostly Jews, but also Serbs and Roma) in the city of Novi Sad,
Serbia, on Jan. 23, 1942. Zentai is accused of the murder in Budapest on Nov. 8, 1944 of an 18-year-old Jewish boy named Peter Balasz, whom he caught on a streetcar without the required yellow star.

In both cases, although the evidence we provided was very substantial, the cases proceeded at a snail’s pace, jeopardizing the chances of prosecution given the age of the suspects. In Kepiro’s case, the investigation in Hungary was slowed by innumerable delays influenced by the fact that his crimes had been committed in Serbia. In Australia, Zentai’s lawyers were able to delay his extradition for about four years by mounting various technical legal challenges unconnected to the case.

Now, however, we are finally approaching the moment of truth in both cases. Reports from Budapest indicate that the prosecution is satisfied that it has sufficient evidence to prosecute Kepiro and hopefully will do so shortly, and Zentai is in jail pending his final appeal after the Australian Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O’Connor approved his extradition to Hungary to stand trial. In short, by the end of 2009, we almost certainly will know whether these two suspected Holocaust perpetrators will be held accountable for their crimes.

While the process of facilitating these and other cases (in which excellent suspects died before they could be prosecuted) often is nerve-wracking, there is no alternative but to try our best to maximize justice through the existing legal system. This is our obligation to the victims of the Holocaust, one which fully deserves a serious effort to achieve as much justice as possible despite the difficulties engendered by the passage of time. "Operation: Last Chance‚" is an important part of that effort.

(Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel Office. His new book, "Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice," was published last month by Palgrave/Macmillan.)

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