The Shoah (Holocaust) museum in Israel is called Yad Vashem . Literally it means “place and name”, but is contextually used to assert that “everybody has a name”. The phrase is from the Prophet Isaiah who poetically scribes “I will give them in my house and in my walls a place and a name, better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name I will give him, which will not be discontinued.” We read these stirring words on Jewish fast days, and apply it to those who are not extended the dignity of a proper funeral and burial.
Resulting from a crime committed 72 years ago in Hungary, there is a particular Jewish person, one amongst six million, that was murdered. His name was Peter Balazs, but the memory of his name and place has yet to be fully laid to rest by history. This young Jewish man was publically beaten to death, and his body cast into the Danube river. It has been alleged that a man residing in Perth since 1950 was complicit in the crime. Based on the evidence gathered, Hugarian authorities had sought an extradition for trial.
A series of legal processes have seen this case proceed over a seven year period all the way to the High Court, that yesterday upheld a decision not to extradite Mr Charles Zentai, citing that at the time of the alleged crime, there was no war crime legislation applicable in Hungary.
I am not qualified to analyse the legalities of this case, nor have I ever met any of the Zentai family. I did have the opportunity to speak in person to Efraim Zuroff, the accalimed Director of the Simon Weisenthal Centre, who on one of his trips to Perth did perosnally discuss the case with the family. He asserted during that visit that his mission was not personally vindictive, but a pursuit of justice. The legal case in Australia is not a murder trial, but to permit extradition so that such a trial can proceed. If the accused is not guilty, then justice should prevail.
Of those I have spoken to in Perth, people in the Jewish community here find the High Court outcome scandalous and dissapointing, particularly as the decision is based on a legal technicality.
Media coverage has been surprisingly emotive and sympathetic towards Charles Zentai, due to his age and the time lapse since this alleged crime occured. Today’s West Australian talks about the feeelings of the Zentai family and their sense of relief. It’s coverage does not balance this by expressing the feelings of the Jewish community and the outrage felt due to injustice. The Haaretz coverage provides greater background, including the well articulated views of MP Michael Danby.
The Zentai family seem to be reacting to the High Court decision as if their father was declared innocent, and have even mooted demanding an apology from the Australian government. Jeremy Jones has hit the nail on the head in response to this, as covered by J-Wire:
Jones told J-Wire: “The decision that Charles Zentai cannot be extradited to Hungary to face judgement for alleged war crimes is extremely disappointing. The matter ideally would have been dealt with many years ago, with any court time spent determining guilt or innocence rather than technicalities relating to an extradition request. The serious accusations have been in the public arena and it would have appeared to be in the interests of the accused, if he was innocent, to have them dealt with expeditiously when he was arrested in Perth more than seven years ago. It is now incumbent on Australian authorities to assess whether he can and should be charged under Australian legislation which is designed to ensure that no person who participated in crimes against humanity can escape justice through immigration to Australia”.
The Australan legal system has again shown itself to be weak, and absurd technicalities have yet again led towards the avoidance of an outcome that then provides for a murder trial. Perhaps some of the impassionate people involved in the lengthy legal wrangle had hoped if they keep buying time for years upon years, eventually Mr Zentai would die of old age and this case would not have then needed to reach a conclusion. That has not occured, and it is now plain for the world to see that Australia’s record of being a safe haven for people accused of war crimes is well in tact. We have a Government in this country that delivers support for Holocaust education and that recognises the inhumanity and barbarity of the Shoah. However we apparently do not have a legal system that can follow through on delivering justice to the victims of the Shoah, and in Judaism, actions speak louder than words and deed speaks louder than rhetoric.
There may be no further recourse at a societal level for legal justice in this instance. History will show Australia to be judicially impotent when it comes to confronting accountability for bringing alleged war criminals to trial. The only justice that can now be sought is nothing more than a matter between Mr Zentai and his creator. One day Mr Zentai will stand trial in a heavenly court. As he prepares for that trial, only he himself knows whether he is innocent or guilty, and he will approach his ultimate judgement on the basis of his conscious. If there is no justice in this world, but justice in the world to come, then the soul of Mr Peter Balazs will eventually find comfort.