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
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 numerable 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
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.