It's nearly a decade since I traipsed along sheep tracks,
poked around dark forests and visited elderly residents
in grim Soviet-era housing tenements while searching
for clues about alleged Nazis in Australia. Before
that trip to Lithuania - where police and auxiliary
units collaborated with the Nazis to murder thousands
of Jews after the German invasion of June 24, 1941
- I was open-minded about the moral and legal merits
of pursuing ageing war criminals.
But my experiences in Lithuania - including meetings
with witnesses and pursuers, visits to the secluded forest
sites where Jews were massacred and a perusal of the
extensive archival evidence against the perpetrators
- made me less equivocal. I came away believing that
when the evidence was compelling, Australia should not
only co-operate with deportation applications, but it
should also at least pursue suspects and, where possible,
attempt to prosecute.
I went to Lithuania to trace the alleged crimes of seven
former Lithuanians who had collaborated with the Nazis
in exterminating Jews, before fleeing to Australia in
the late 1940s and early '50s. Their names were included
on an initial list of 22 suspects who had resettled in
Australia after the war. Efraim Zuroff, the famed ''Nazi
hunter'' and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre,
passed the list to Australia in 2002. The Wiesenthal
Centre called this ongoing search Operation Last Chance.
For that was what it was.
I ascertained seven still lived in Australia. Most had
belonged to Lithuanian Police Auxiliary Units or Schutzmannschaften
- units drawn from the anti-Soviet partisans and run
by the German SS. The archival evidence against them
was compelling: a young historian had cross-referenced
their names against Lithuanian and Soviet records of
Nazi-collaborating police and auxiliary members, and
against the statements of witnesses. Some witnesses were
still alive. All were at least 85 or older.
Australia had already abandoned actively pursuing alleged
Nazi war criminals. It disbanded the Special Investigations
Unit after five years in 1992 after it failed to successfully
prosecute even one. Australian political will and investigatory
resources had evaporated. Meanwhile, in the year to April
2003, the US convicted five Nazi collaborators and began
deportation proceedings against 11 others. Europe also
made successful prosecutions.
Last week, the push to bring such alleged collaborators
who live in Australia to justice in effect ended when
the High Court ruled against the extradition to Hungary
of 90-year-old Charles Zentai, who was accused of beating
to death a Jewish teenager in Budapest in 1944. The High
Court ruled Zentai should not be extradited because the
charge of ''war crime'' (for which he was sought) did
not exist in wartime Hungary.
Zentai is free to live his final years in Australia.
He and his family are apparently taking vindication from
the High Court judgment. But it neither clears his name,
which has been besmirched by the allegations, nor adds
to the evidence against him.
Which is a tragedy for everyone involved.
Australia must reconsider how it handles such cases.
Not that we are likely to receive another request for
the extradition of an alleged Nazi war criminal. It's
more a question of precedent.
Australian authorities have long been aware that alleged
war criminals - including participants in genocide and
group killings in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia - have
made homes in Australia.
In Lithuania in 2003, I visited the old Soviet archive,
where so much of the evidence against Nazi war criminals
was kept. It was an austere, malevolent place where Nazi
sympathisers and anti-Soviet activists were tried and
tortured before being dispatched by firing squad - or
I found a book - Whoever Saves One Life … The Efforts
to Save Jews in Lithuania between 1941 and 1944. It recounted
the story of a Lithuanian Jew at Bonegilla processing
camp, northern Victoria, in 1949. He approached a group
of Lithuanians and addressed one thus: '' … do you remember
the time when you supervised the shooting of Jews? I
managed to run away from the very edge of the ditch.
I remember you very well.''
In early 2004, I discovered one of the alleged Nazi collaborators
whose crimes I had inquired into in Lithuania (for an
article), lived within walking distance of my house.
I visited, intent on asking him about the evidence against
him. He was in his final days. The nurses told me he
could no longer speak or understand.
It was too late.