Monday, July 09, 2012

The Zentai Case: silencing the ‘memory of offence’

From “Genocide Perspectives IV: Essays on Holocaust and Genocide” edited by  Colin Tatz, The Australian Institute for Holocaust & Genocide Studies, 2012 (pp372-311): “...Zentai and the Quest for Historical Justice” by Ruth Balint:
...The Holocaust in Hungary and the case of Peter Balàzs
...In 1944, the Jews of Hungary, numbering some 700,000, remained the most physically intact Jewish community in Europe. Close to 64,000 Hungarian Jews had already lost their lives; 20,000 ‘alien’ Jews had been sent across the border into Poland and shot at Kamenets-Poldolsk, and a majority of the rest were Jewish men killed when serving in labour battalions on the Ukrainian front. A series of severe anti-Jewish laws had also been implemented, restricting basic civil and socio-economic rights. But the conservative government of Miklos Kallay (9 March 1942 to 22 March 1944) had stopped short of complying with Germany’s demands for the deportation of Hungarian Jewry. The occupation of Hungary by Germany in March 1944 led to the implementation of the 'Final Solution' with a speed and efficiency unrivalled in other Nazi-occupied countries. Within a few short months, at a time when it was clear that the war was already lost, and when the realities of Auschwitz were public knowledge among the world’s leaders, more than 437,000 Hungarian Jews were deported from the provinces to the death camps. This was only made possible with the wholehearted support of the Hungarian constitutionally appointed government of Döme Sztójay, the endorsement of the Regent of Hungary, Miklos Horthy, and with the assistance of local authorities. As Braham writes: ‘With Horthy still at the helm, providing the symbol of national sovereignty, the Hungarian police, gendarmerie, and civil service collaborated with the SS in the anti-Jewish drive with a routine and efficiency that impressed even the Germans.’ By 1 June, the average daily number of Hungarian Jews being deported to Auschwitz was 20,000.
By the end of July, virtually the only remaining Jews surviving in Hungary were in Budapest. In the month of July, 25,000 were deported to Auschwitz, at which point the government temporarily suspended deportations. In October, the fascist Arrow Cross party, under the leadership of Ferenc Szàlasi, was installed in government in a Nazi-orchestrated coup. The Arrow Cross embarked on a reign of terror, enacting frenetic killing sprees of the remaining Jews seeking refuge in the city. Thousands were arrested and shot and dumped into the Danube, and thousands more were shot or perished during a death march of 70,000 to Austria. The Arrow Cross reign lasted until Soviet forces liberated the city on 13 February 1945; during this time, those Jews who managed to stay outside of the ghetto, using false papers and not wearing a yellow star, had a slim chance of survival. Péter Balázs, an 18-year-old boy, was among those who chose the Jewish underground.
It was during this time that Zentai, a conscripted Hungarian Royal Army officer, was stationed at the Aréna Road military barracks in Budapest in 1944. Zentai’s commanding officer was Bela Máder, and his fellow officer Lajos Nagy. After the war, they were tried for the murder of Péter Balázs and found guilty, Máder in 1946, Nagy in 1947. Máder was sentenced to forced labour for life; Nagy was given the death sentence, later commuted to life imprisonment. Evidence given at these trials prompted the Hungarian authorities to charge Zentai with the same crime; by that time, he was already in Germany living as a DP. These trials were part of the wave of war crimes trials held in Hungary in the immediate postwar period; approximately 27,000 people were sentenced by the Hungarian 'people's courts' for war crimes, crimes against the state or crimes against humanity, among them a number of senior government ministers. These also included local and county government officials, gendarmerie and military officers responsible for the expropriation, ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary.
At his trial, Nagy told of how, under the orders of their commanding officer Bela Máder, Zentai went out on patrols regularly to perform identity checks and round up Jews for interrogation. According to Nagy, Zentai already knew Péter Balázs: in his statement after his arrest he told the police, ‘Zentai told me that the boy and his family were old acquaintances of his’. The Zentai and Balázs families were both from Budafok, a small town on the outskirts of Budapest. The Balázs family were well known in their region as Jews and for their leftist sympathies; Dezsö Balázs, Péter’s father, had his legal practice there until 1942 when the family moved into Budapest. Zentai, only a few years older than Péter Balázs, was apparently his ‘Levente’ instructor for a time in Budafok. Balázs was surviving on false identity papers, and defied a call-up order for a Jewish forced labour unit in April 1944. On 8 November, Zentai recognised the boy on a Buda-pest tram and arrested him for not wearing the yellow star.
What happened afterwards, according to the evidence presented at Nagy's trial, is that between the hours of 3 pm and 8 pm, Zentai and Nagy beat Balázs so badly that by 8 pm he was dying. According to Nagy's evidence, they (Zentai, Máder and himself) saw that the boy was dying, and then went to an adjoining room and began drinking. In a macabre twist, Captain Máder decided to show off their handiwork to a number of other prisoners detained that night at Aréna Road. As a number of them testified at Nagy's trial, eight of them (some say six) were taken to Captain Máder's rooms, where one by one, they were shown a man lying on the floor covered by his own overcoat. His breath rattled, and it was clear that he was dying. ‘Can you hear that music?’ Sándor Révner stated that Máder asked him, when it came his turn to view the dying man. ‘That's the way you will go too.’ Each of the witnesses said they were told the same thing. The prisoners were then brought back into the room and forced to say the Hebrew prayer for the dead, ‘and we said that prayer according to his instructions’. The next day, all but one of them escaped. Each confirmed, as did other officers present that day, that the man lying on the floor, according to his photograph, was Péter Balázs.
I have before me the original court transcripts in which witnesses describe the brutalities they endured while they were detained at the barracks. There are various references to Zentai’s regular participation in these beatings. Imre Zoltan testified that in 1944, while in Budapest as a forced labourer, he was arrested and taken to the barracks ‘where at Béla Máder's orders, Cadet Károly Zentai and Cadet Ferenc Érsek beat me up for hours with boxing gloves until I lost consciousness’. Ervin Barinkai, another soldier at the barracks, remembered seeing Zoltan ‘gravely assaulted several times, especially by Cadet Sergeant Károly Zentai’. Another cadet, György Varsányi, stated that ‘it was Cadet Sergeant Zentai who did the beatings, I saw that myself several times’.
On the night in question, József Monori, another officer assigned to the barracks under Máder’s command, reported that he heard, but did not see, the beating going on behind closed doors. He ‘definitely’ remembered Zentai, Nagy and Máder present. He went to bed, but was woken up at around 11 pm and told to harness a horse and carriage: ‘Nagy and Zentai brought down a corpse from the office, put it on the cart, and covered it with straw…Nagy sat on the driver’s seat, Zentai beside him, and I sat on the side of the cart. Nagy was driving the cart. We drove along Aréna Road…down to the Danube…There Nagy and Zentai took the corpse and dumped it in the Danube. They waited a while to see if the corpse would come up but it sank.’ Monori also stated that during the journey ‘Nagy and Zentai were talking about how they should not have beaten the boy so hard’.

These testimonies were taken before the warrant for Zentai’s arrest, which was issued on 29 April 1948. After the warrant was issued, Máder, already a condemned man, stated that Zentai ‘took part in patrols as well as in beating and maltreating Jews…He and 1st Lieutenant (Nagy) were always ready to volunteer to do the atrocities.’ Imre Parázsló, another cadet, stated that the identity checks on Jews were ‘mostly carried out by 1st Lieutenant Lajos Nagy and Ensign Károly Zentai accompanied by the worst imaginable beatings…Zentai hit hardest but Nagy was not far behind. They hit the Jews with fists, boxing gloves or sticks, kicked them, and I often saw these Jews beaten to a bloody pulp coming out of the office moaning and crying. Bela Máder knew about these tortures, indeed, he gave orders to them.’
Hungarian journalist György Vámos, referring to the ‘unusual circumstances’ of judicial practices in postwar Hungary, recently cautioned that witness testimonies relating to this case should be treated with care. He offers no detail beyond remarking that social justice, as opposed to merely criminal justice, was an important objective of the government at the time. This is largely true. The people’s courts were driven less by legal concerns than by the desire for retribution and, in many cases, revenge. Confusion, insufficient preparation and political bias were rife during the major political trials, of which there were 14 between 1945 and 1946. ‘The historical responsibility of the Hungarian principal war criminals is beyond question’, wrote historian Laszlo Karsai. ‘What is questionable, however, is whether the people's courts were sufficiently equipped to establish their criminal responsibility.’...
...Istvan Hargittai is a professor of chemistry at Budapest Technical University and one of a few to have published in Hungarian his Holocaust experiences and the wall of silence that surrounds this history. He recalls that he and his generation grew up thinking ‘it was the Germans’ who were responsible for the Hungarian Holocaust. Members of the Arrow Cross were outsiders, so the theory went, unrepresentative of the Hungarian people. This myth prevails. Most Hungarians, he says, have lived since World War II as if Auschwitz never happened. The crimes of the Communist regime command the sphere of public debate over retribution and justice. The question of Hungarian complicity in the crimes against a significant number of its own people in World War II has yet to be asked....

Károly Zentai and the route to Australia
...The story of how Zentai came to be in Australia is part of the history of Australia’s first immigration program, in which tens of thousands of DPs were brought out on ships from the DP camps in Germany and Italy to Australia on its mass resettlement scheme. For many genuine refugees, Australia was ‘the farthest place’, far removed from the Europe of old race hatreds that had led to the concentration camps of World War II; for others, Australia was a country of last resort. Zentai’s own application for refugee status, for example, lists Canada and Argentina as countries of preference for immigration. There is no mention of Australia. Contemporary observers were often struck by how comparatively easy it could be, if you were non-Jewish and ‘fit’, to get in to Australia when applications elsewhere had failed. Ron Maslyn Williams—on location in Germany in 1949 to make Mike and Stefani (1952)—wrote to his boss at the Commonwealth Film Unit, Stanley Hawes: ‘As one intelligent DP put it to me “It is Australia or Siberia or starvation…Australia is the gambler’s shot”. Moreover, “quite literally, very many IRO officials regard Australia as a kind of modern Van Dieman’s (sic) land where they can dump the people who constitute IRO’s problem”.’
The Australian authorities, for their part, counted physical attributes above all else as criteria for migration: one needed to be fit, preferably young and, more preferably still, fair-skinned. Until 1960, humanitarian principles did not inform motives for assisted refugee migration—pragmatism did. Australia needed to expand its labour force and its population, and the only way that the government could sell its scheme of mass migration was by assuring its public that it remained committed to the principles of a ‘White Australia’ on which the Commonwealth was founded. Jews were especially unwelcome. Immediately after the war the government announced a humanitarian scheme to permit the arrival of concentration camp victims with Australian relatives; the scheme was met by antisemitic protest, and in response, the immigration minister Arthur Calwell introduced a quota system, in which only 25 percent of each ship carrying migrants could comprise Jews. These would be admitted only on the grounds of their potential contribution to Australia's economy, not on humanitarian grounds.
As Klaus Neumann has written: ‘Suitable non-British settlers were young, educated and healthy and, ideally, possessed certain racial features. Australian selection teams preferred vigorous, flaxen-haired, fair-skinned and blue-eyed young men and women from the Baltic countries who did not or could not return to the Soviet Union.’ These were to resemble Australia's ‘own kind’ as closely as possible. Beyond this, a philosophy of assimilation governed immigration policy and popular attitudes towards new arrivals. Immigrants, labelled ‘New Australians’, were expected to merge, quickly and quietly, into the Australian cultural and social landscape. This kind of thinking also implied, of course, that people's political pasts were as irrelevant as their cultural pasts—a slate wiped clean by the promise of Australian acculturation.
The Zentais ticked the right boxes: ‘fit worker’ is handwritten across both Károly and Rozsa’s migration selection forms. In March 1949, Zentai, his wife Rozsa, their two sons born after the war, and Zentai’s older sister, Julia, were at Tuttlingen in southern Germany’s French zone, where they were interviewed and accepted by the Australian Migration Team for resettlement in Australia. Zentai’s screening card twice states that he arrived in Germany on 9 March 1949, and that he had ‘fled from the Communist Party’. His wife’s card indicates the same information. The accompanying resettlement card from the IRO, which establishes their status as DPs, also states that Zentai and his wife were in Budafok between 1945 and 1949, and that their son Gabor was born in Budafok, Hungary, in 1946.
Except that he wasn’t, and they weren’t. Documents held by the International Tracing Service (ITS) tell a different story. The ITS, located in Bad Arolsen in Germany, is a massive storage house of SS records of the death camps, yet it also holds the records created by the Allies in the DP camps. Zentai’s file includes his application for refugee assistance to the IRO, and lists his places of residence from 1938 onwards: in March 1945 he was already on his way to Dietersburg, Bavaria, where he arrived, according to the information he provided, on 19 April 1945 and remained until March 1948. A document dated 14 August 1946 confirms that he, his wife, his sister and his son, Gabor, born 26 February of that year, were in Dietersburg. His son Gabor is twice recorded as having been born in Arnstorf, Bavaria. Another, dated 15 July 1947, indicates that Zentai was temporarily in Kösslarn, in the district of Griesbach, also in Bavaria.
In his application for IRO assistance, a routine statutory declaration states that Karl Zentai was ‘never a member of the Arrow Cross or any political party and never committed any atrocities’. It is signed by Zentai and three witnesses, dated 12 March 1948 at the Hungarian office (Ungarisches Büro) in Pfarrkirchen. A handwritten statement by an IRO officer concludes: ‘On account of credibility of the statement of the Hungarian office and the witnesses he should be found eligible for refugee status with IRO assistance. Refuses to return home for the present regime there—no political freedoms.’
None of these official records hint at the warrant for his arrest issued by the Budapest People’s Court in April 1948, despite the fact that his whereabouts were well known to the Hungarian authorities. The warrant even lists an address, ‘the American occupation zone in Germany, where his address at present is…Furth in Pfarrkirchen district with farmer Jakob Schneiderbauer’. It appears that Zentai was able to make his way safely to Tuttlingen almost one year after the warrant was issued. Was the warrant ever communicated to the Allied Occupation Forces in Germany, and if so, why was it ignored? Did Zentai know about his warrant? The answers to these questions, of course, can only be speculative. Yet the inconsistencies in the records as to his whereabouts for the four years between 1945 and 1949 seem to indicate some kind of attempt to cover his tracks. In his recent interviews with the media, Zentai has never tried to deny that he was already living under the protection of the Allied Occupation Forces in Germany from 1945. Why then did he lie about his whereabouts in 1949? I contend that his decision was strategic: rewriting those four years in this way so as to convey that he was coming from Hungary in 1949 rather than 1945 distanced his decision to leave Hungary from the imme-diate aftermath of World War II, thus making it simpler to argue that he was ‘fleeing the Communists’, as so many other East Europeans were doing in the years of 1948 and 1949.
Moreover, as Zentai’s case makes clear, the DP camps, and their route to Australia, could provide avenues of escape for those wishing to avoid retribution or exposure. It was well known to contemporaries that a number of collaborators and war criminals were hiding in the DP camps. G Daniel Cohen has examined the extensive technologies of screening and identification developed by the IRO, which took over from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in 1947, to determine the authenticity of refugees and displaced persons. It was a daunting task, but according to IRO officials, ‘of first importance in its work’.70 Refugees were now required to fill in numerous forms and questionnaires, yet as Cohen explains, if there was no apparent reason for exclusion, that is, if they seemed to fit the story they presented, they were not required to prove their right to be included as eligible. IRO officers received manuals that included sample cases and historical information to guide their decisions, and were taught how to detect untrue statements, yet in practice their mission to cleanse the system of ineligibles was often frustrated. Visitors reported that the ‘right answers’ to IRO questionnaires were circulating in the camps; further, it was clear to IRO officials that many simply destroyed their identity papers and made up new ones. Dates of displacement were frequently altered during interrogations to make their applications more plausible. Within the IRO, Cohen quotes, it was commonly believed that ‘after many months of observation and listening, the DPs are told what to say and know how to craft an acceptable story leading to eligibility’.
Over one million people arrived in Australia under various immigration schemes by the end of the 1950s, and there are estimates that even in its earliest years, 4,000 to 5,000 Nazis may have found sanctuary there, most of them from East-Central Europe. As Konrad Kwiet notes, during the screening process they lied about their wartime activities, usually claiming to have been subjected to ‘forced labour’ or ‘deportation to Germany’. ‘In reality’, he writes, ‘many of them had actively enthusiastically assisted the Nazis. Their claims concealed “police work”, military and Waffen SS service and participation in killing operations’.
This should also be viewed in the context of a broader Allied retreat from the issue of denazification and punishment of wartime activities. Zentai was in Germany at the very moment that Europe’s postwar memory was being moulded, by all sides, around the notion of German guilt, in which all responsibility for the war was made to lie squarely at the feet of the Germans. This focus on Germany meant the postwar status of other countries could be resolved. Thus Austria was retrospectively declared the ‘first victim’ of Nazi aggression and with Austria’s innocence assured, the responsibilities of other non-German nationals in Europe were similarly eradicated. As the Cold War deepened, the Allies were determined to avoid alienating Austria and Germany, and this meant removing attention from the past. ‘In a process that would have been unthinkable in 1945’, Judt wrote, ‘the identification and punishment of active Nazis in German-speaking Europe had effectively ended by 1948 and was a forgotten issue by the early fifties’.
IRO policy also reflected a softening towards those who previously may have been denied eligibility as collaborators. Ideological motives for assisting enemy forces, for example, became as important as their actions during the war; in other words, if someone had voluntarily enlisted in the German army because they wanted to oppose the Soviet regime, this was reason enough for inclusion. DP claims of anti-Communist sympathies and fear of Communist persecution began to carry as much, if not more, weight than claims of Nazi persecution. ‘By 1950, refugees deemed "imposters" or "security threats" in the days of UNRRA were now offered the chance to emigrate to Australia or the North American continent.’
This strategic refocusing of attention away from the crimes of the past identified by Judt was enormously significant for the thousands, if not millions, whose wartime pasts were being reframed by a deliberate process of forgetting and denial, and whose identities were recast as refugees of an oppressive Communist regime. Australia’s own role in this history was one of passivity and equally, one of denial. In the 1950s, protests by the Australian Jewish community over the migration of Nazis and their collaborators were even-tually silenced by the continuing apathy and even hostility to their campaign. The politics and ideology of anti-Communism coloured government rhetoric and attitudes to the evidence of Nazi war criminals and collaborators living in Australia, and governed the state’s failure to act. This was made explicit in the official response in 1961 to a request by the USSR for the extradition of an Estonian immigrant Ervin Viks, who was accused of murdering 12,000 Jews and Roma in the Tartu concentration camp. The Liberal government of Robert Menzies refused. In a speech defending the decision, Australian Attorney General Sir Garfield Barwick declared that against the ‘utter abhorrence’ felt by Australians against war crimes, ‘there is the right of this nation, by receiving people into this country to enable men to turn their backs on past bitternesses and to make a new life for themselves in a happier community’. He concluded, in what has become an infamous phrase: ‘the time has come to close the chapter’.
This directive to forget in order to create ‘new lives’ and a ‘happier community’ became a prevailing ethos in the next few decades, assisted by the fact that there was no legal framework established for extradition or prosecution of suspected war criminals. This changed briefly in the late 1980s when, under the Hawke Labor government, a special inquiry was set up to investigate allegations of Nazi war criminals living here, inspired largely by the forensic investigations of journalist Mark Aarons in a series of reports for ABC radio and television, which resulted in the Menzies Report. Controversial legislation was passed in parliament enabling Australian courts to prosecute suspects for war crimes (War Crimes Amendment Act, 1988). Most importantly, a Special Investigation Unit (SIU) was created within the federal Attorney General’s department to investigate suspected war criminals. In its five short years of operation, there were 843 investigations, three individuals charged and tried in Adelaide, with no successful conviction.82 In 1992, the SIU was closed down, and responsibility for following up war crimes’ accusations delegated to the federal police, who were either unwilling or unable to investigate them. It was, in Kwiet’s words, ‘a clear signal that the second chapter of the war crimes debate in Australia was closed’. During his brief tenure as chief historian for the SIU, Kwiet observed both the negative, ‘even damning’ attitude that prevailed within the legal fraternity towards war crimes’ legislation and the proceedings themselves; and the frequent indifference of the Australian public. He recalls:
In the public domain the war crimes debate had, in my view, little, if any impact on public awareness and memory… The public proceedings in Adelaide took place in front of empty galleries. Quite popular in the scant media coverage were references to the accused as ‘nice neighbours’ or ‘old’ and ‘sick’ pensioners. For the overwhelming majority of Australians, the news of the closure of the SIU went almost unnoticed.
David Fraser has also noted that the presence of unpunished perpetrators never became part of the cultural or political dynamic of Australian national identity or Australian values. Yet others have recognised that in spite of a lethargic community response to war crimes trials, these are important forums for producing cosmopolitan ideals of justice and human rights. They also affirm the role of history, in the form of evidence that 'things happened', in justice work and in the work of remembrance.
Although the legal framework was successfully developed by the SIU in the late 1980s, the resources for the investigation of people who have committed war crimes overseas have not been forthcoming and there have been no charges laid since.
The Wiesenthal Centre recently listed Australia as the ‘only major country of refuge’ and former diplomat Fergus Hansen, in a recent report compiled for the Lowy Institute, writes that Australia ‘has inadvertently become a safe haven for war criminals’. This is certainly the impression Australia has been giving the world, and presumably its war criminals, for some time. Hansen notes that there are indications war criminals have come here from Afghanistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sierra Leone, India, Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, Chile, Lebanon, Nigeria, Bangladesh, the former Yugoslavia, possibly Rwanda and East Timor as well, among other countries.

The twilight of memory and the struggle for historical justice
Zentai’s appeal against his extradition to Australia’s Federal Court in April 2008 failed, with Federal Court judge John Gilmour finding that there was no reason why Zentai should not be extradited to face trial. The court agreed to bail for Zentai on the grounds of ill health, and his lawyers took the case to the Minister for Home Affairs, O’Connor. This appeal failed, and Zentai was ruled fit to travel. This time Zentai’s lawyers based the justification for their appeal on the argument that the offence for which Zentai is convicted did not constitute a war crime at the time it was committed. The implications of an argument such as this, although not new, are momentous, legitimising what was, in effect, a fascist regime at the time and putting forward the quite extraordinary idea that for Jews like Balázs, being beaten to death was somehow lawful. A similar argument was made during the Nuremberg Trials, in which the question of whether the 24 German leaders should have to answer for actions rendered illegal after the fact—ex-post-facto—was put forward by the defence. The prosecuting lawyers never conceded this point, arguing that the charges were grounded in international law and what they called a common law of nations. Such an argument suggested that the accused had no idea they were acting illegally, an argument without merit in the minds of contemporary observers: murder is murder. The legality of the charge of war crimes was upheld at Nuremberg, and it is commendable that Federal Court judge John Gilmour resisted such logic today.
His lawyers successfully appealed the decision, taking it back to the Federal Court. In July 2010, Justice Neil McKerracher ruled that the Government had made an ‘error of law’ in agreeing to extradite him, and that the crime for which Zentai was charged was not an extraditable offence under the Extradition Act. Zentai returned home, but in 2011 the Federal Government returned to the High Court for another appeal, seeking a ruling on what constitutes a war crime. It is thought that such a ruling will have a significant impact on Australia’s extradition regime.
Zentai has clearly led an exemplary life in Australia. He is the embodiment of the multicultural ideal, a man who worked, brought up a family here and settled quietly into the suburban landscape. It is not easy to watch a frail elderly man being hauled in front of the courts to face trial. He might, despite all the evidence, be innocent. There are powerful incentives to simply turn our collective back on this story and let the old man be. But are we also prepared to accept a statute of limitations on war crimes or crimes against humanity? Is there a time when it is too late for justice? ‘That the past slips into the oblivion of forgetting does not change its moral nature’, writes Booth. ‘The passage of time may dull our recollection of events, but it does not erase the (morally weighty) fact of their having happened nor the wrong involved in them.’
...Andreas Huyssen has described our time as the twilight of memory. ‘Twilight’, he writes, ‘is that moment of the day that foreshadows the night of forgetting, but that seems to slow time itself, an in-between state in which the last light of the day may still play out its ultimate marvels. It is memory’s privileged time.’ As did Levi, Huyssen believes the struggle for memory is also a struggle for history. When we think of the Holocaust today, we often imagine our present time in terms of it being ‘too late’ for justice.
... in this brief twilight of Holocaust time when victims and perpetrators are gradually leaving our world behind, we should be ensuring that these cases are told and not forgotten. Justice, not memory, is the antonym of forgetting, writes Booth. ‘In other words, the imperative to remember is not the leaden voice of what has gone before, but rather it is the call of justice insisting on the irreversibility and persistence of what has been done, its claims on us which are neither diminished nor augmented by the extra-moral passing of time, and which call on us to bear these injustices in mind.’ History’s purpose is to give meaning to the present even as it seeks knowledge of the past; justice, or the attempt at it, however flawed and incomplete, belongs squarely within the historical project of understanding. A 1987 cartoon by Ben Sargent about the Klaus Barbie trial in France remains pertinent: ‘It's been more than forty years’, a younger man remarks. ‘Why are we hunting down a bunch of pathetic old men just to prosecute them for…er…uh…well, you know…uh…whatever that stuff was they did…?’ The older man replies: ‘That's precisely why.’
As Huyssen writes, ‘the inner temporality and the politics of Holocaust memory, however, even where it speaks of the past, must be directed towards the future. The future will not judge us for forgetting but for remembering all too well and still not acting in accordance with those memories’.

Zentai’s case is not just about Zentai. The important question of a regime and a country that enabled, indeed encouraged, the murder of thousands of Jews like Péter Balázs, and a country that then gave murderers refuge and even prosperity is still to be addressed. It is about the legacy of both countries in the denial and silencing of a ‘memory of offence’, and a responsibility towards our present and their future.

No comments: