Monday, December 05, 2005

Lajos Polgar - war crimes investigation

From The Australian: House of horrors [December 05, 2005]:

A Melbourne man is at the centre of a war crimes investigation into a dark chapter in Hungary's history, Natasha Robinson writes

AT the centre of Hungary's wartime history lies a gaping hole. Documentary evidence of the reign of terror by the notorious fascist Arrow Cross regime during World War II is missing and there are few surviving witnesses.

One building that should be a source of historical records is the Arrow Cross party headquarters at 60 Andrassy St, Budapest -- known as the House of Loyalty.

To Melbourne pensioner Lajos Polgar, it was the House of Fidelity. Now a war crimes investigation by Hungarian authorities into Polgar may fill some of history's gaps. And if the investigation results in an extradition request for Polgar, he will become the second Australian pensioner this year to face prosecution for alleged war crimes. Perth pensioner Charles Zentai is facing extradition to Hungary accused of bashing 18-year-old Peter Balazs to death in a Budapest army barracks.

What is known of the House of Loyalty is that Jews were tortured and possibly killed in the building's basement. "It was a notorious building. It was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross," says Hungarian Holocaust historian Tom Kramer. "They used it basically as a torture chamber, as a means of intimidating potential opponents."

Polgar insists he's innocent of any war crimes and that he held the lesser role of secretary at the House of Loyalty to hanged party henchman Jozsef Gera. Polgar laughs when told the Hungarian authorities suspect him of genocide. "I am absolutely innocent. I never made any crime at all," he says.

Polgar hid his wartime history when he emigrated to Australia in 1949 and subsequently befriended the family of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser. He lived a quiet life until four months ago when Labor MP Michael Danby raised questions about his wartime history in federal parliament.

Court papers obtained by The Australian reveal Polgar was a key figure in the brutal Arrow Cross regime. Gera claimed he personally appointed Polgar as "commander of the House of Loyalty".

Whether Gera was telling the truth when he named Polgar as commander is likely to be critical to the Hungarian investigation, says Kramer, author of the book From Emancipation to Catastrophe: the Rise and Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry.

"There is no question at all in my mind that whoever was in command of the House of Loyalty was in fact a major war criminal," Kramer says. "Polgar is probably attempting to airbrush himself out of history, painting himself as an innocent bystander who was just shifting paper backwards and forwards, whereas the commander would be the one issuing the instructions."

...Polgar says he supported Szalasi's grand plan to deport Jews from Hungary, ultimately to their own separate state. "Szalasi wanted most of the Jews out from Hungary. It was a plan. But that should happen in the most human way," he says. "He told us later on, what about Madagascar, that is empty. That could take 20 million Jews."

"He said 'I am a Zionist. If the purpose of Zionism is finding a home for the Jews, a country for the Jews, I'll do everything in my power to help the Jews get a new home'."

Polgar insists Arrow Cross was not anti-semitic and he is proud of his wartime service. Yet in 1945, in the war's aftermath, as Nazis and Arrow Cross leaders were sent to trial and hanged one by one, Polgar's outspoken defence of his fellow partymen stopped.

In French-occupied Germany he obtained Swiss papers that gave him a new identity, that of Josef Cardof. He says he had no idea who the real Josef Cardof was. In Germany, as in Australia, where he emigrated in 1949, he never spoke of his wartime history.
But in 1957, in central Victoria, after eight years of working as a home help on the estate of Robert Sandford-Beggs -- Malcolm Fraser's future father-in-law -- Polgar's strong sense of pride drove him to revert to his real name. When he applied for Australian citizenship in 1957, Sandford-Beggs acted as his chief referee on a citizenship application. The Immigration Department approved Polgar's naturalisation after ASIO cleared him of any suspicion.

Fifty years on, Hungarian prosecutors are less willing to turn a blind eye. Polgar will find few to support his view of Szalasi, least of all among Hungarian authorities. But primary witness accounts of what really happened at the House of Loyalty will be difficult to obtain.

"Very soon after the collapse of the Szalasi government Budapest descended into chaos and total anarchy," says Kramer. "You had gangs of youths just roaming the streets with guns and grenades acting as judge, jury and executioner. A lot of this, a lot of our knowledge, has slipped into the realm of the unconscious. So people make all sorts of claims for themselves knowing the documentation was either destroyed in the siege of Budapest, or shipped to Moscow. It's probably still there unopened and uncatalogued.

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