Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to bring Nazi Criminals to Justice
by Efraim Zuroff, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 256 pp. US$25.00
With the end of the Nazi domination of Europe 65 years ago, millions of displaced persons sought sanctuary in Western nations, with a sizable portion gaining entry to Australia. These displaced persons comprised Holocaust survivors, Nazi slave labourers and economic émigrés from impoverished and decimated southern and eastern Europe. Along with legitimate refugees and émigrés were perpetrators of the Holocaust – Germans as well as their European collaborators who served as guards in death camps, auxiliary troops attached to Einsatzkommando units, and ghetto guards. These facilitators of genocide, masquerading as legitimate émigrés, gained entry to Australia and other Western nations, and built new lives for themselves.
After 30 years devoted to identifying, hunting down, and lobbying foreign governments to prosecute suspected war criminals, comes a long-awaited memoir by Efraim Zuroff, historian and current Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem. Despite the passage of time, decline in health and advanced age of the alleged Nazi war criminals, Zuroff launched “Operation Last Chance” in 2002, a final attempt to bring remaining war criminals to justice via a system of rewards for verifiable tips about previously unidentified suspects. His efforts resulted in the identification of over 520 new suspects, residing in 24 different countries, and several indictments and extradition requests.
The book discusses some two dozen war criminals identified in the course of “Operation Last Chance”.
Two chapters are devoted to Australia. The first chronicles the passing of Australia’s war crimes legislation, the establishment of Australia’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), and the subsequent prosecution under that legislation of the alleged Ukrainian Nazi collaborator, Ivan Polyukhovich.
Zuroff’s personal analysis is a worthy addition to the existing literature, following on from the likes of David Bevan’s book on the Polyukovich trial, A Case to Answer. Both books highlight the difficulties associated with prosecuting these cases, including the advanced age of the defendants and witnesses, the passage of time and the failure of witnesses’ memories.
Zuroff’s success is due in no small part to the strong support of local Jewish communities and the cooperation of relevant government law enforcement agencies. In Australia, particular reference is made to the efforts of AIJAC and its Executive Director, Dr. Colin Rubenstein, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), other members of the Jewish and wider Australian community, as well as champions of the anti-war crimes cause within the Australian legal fraternity.
Charles Zentai, the subject of Australia’s current and perhaps final case involving an alleged World War II perpetrator, receives a separate chapter in “Operation Last Chance”. Accused of having murdered a young Jewish man in 1944 during his time serving in the fascist Hungarian militia, Zentai was tracked down to his domicile, an affluent suburb of Perth, where he was arrested by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in 2005. His family fought proceedings seeking to extradite Zentai to Hungary, to face a military tribunal for his alleged war crime. After two years of legal wrangling, the Australian Government approved Zentai’s extradition to Hungary in November 2009. The publication date of Operation Last Chance preceded the Federal Court of Australia’s judgement of July 2, 2010, which overturned Zentai’s extradition order. The court found that the Australian government did not have the jurisdiction to order Zentai to be extradited. It is currently unclear if the Federal Court decision will be appealed.
In the initial years after World War II, the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials were often criticised as a form of ‘victor’s justice.’ As we entered the 21st century, the horrors of World War II gave way to other instances of crimes against humanity – in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Darfur to name but three examples of many. The continued prosecution of World War II war criminals was seen by many as sentimental and unnecessary. Efraim Zuroff’s passion, determination and clear moral compass has helped lead to the defeat on the intellectual battlefield of these views – in Australia and many other nations. Instead, as he has long advocated, it is now generally accepted that time should be no barrier to ensuring expeditious prosecutions for those individuals accused of the most horrific crimes against humanity, for as long as justice can still be attained.