In 2005 Karoly (Charles) Zentai, probably Australia’s last Nazi war-crimes suspect, was identified by the Simon Wiesenthal Center during Operation Last Chance, which has focused on finding the remaining elderly Nazis scattered around the globe. The Wiesenthal Center’s Israeli representative, Efraim Zuroff, located Zentai living quietly in Perth, and requested that the Hungarian government determine if he participated in the murder of 18-year-old Peter Balazs while a member of the Nazi-controlled Hungarian army, in late 1944.
Evidence hidden in long-forgotten archives in Budapest indicts Zentai as the sole surviving suspect in this killing, and Hungary has requested his extradition to stand trial for war crimes. Zentai has unsuccessfully resisted, taking his case all the way to Australia’s High Court. If his final appeal fails, Zentai’s only hope is that the Minister for Home Affairs, Bob Debus, will conclude – as have some doctors – that Zentai is too elderly and frail to travel, let alone stand trial.
Recently, I spent several months sifting through the surviving records of the Budapest People’s Court, which indicate that Zentai’s family name (sometimes rendered Zentay) was originally Steiner.
The witness testimonies relating to his case should be treated with care. Evaluating statements made 60 years ago to the police, the Department of Military Politics and the People’s Court is complex – not least because most witnesses are now dead. Also, there were unusual circumstances in the Hungary of the late 1940s, where the communist-dominated government placed considerable store in ‘social justice’ – not merely criminal justice – and established special procedures in which emotions played a significant part.
Furthermore, the interrogators, investigators and prosecutors were largely under communist control. They were frequently manipulated for party-political purposes. In spite of this, party politics probably did not play a role in such cases; but conscience certainly did. Even today, remembrance of war crimes and trying the guilty are matters of fierce dispute. The situation is undoubtedly uncomfortable: Hungarians must face a part of their history they would rather forget.
Here, then, is what I found in the archives about Zentai’s role in the Balazs murder.
In the autumn of 1944, the army unit in which Karoly Zentai was a junior officer was housed at 51 Arena Avenue. After the Hungarian equivalent of the Nazi Party, the Arrow Cross, assumed power in October of that year, Budapest’s residents lived in terror. Jews who ventured onto the streets risked their lives. Members of the army and the Arrow Cross stopped people on a whim and demanded that they prove their identity. Those whose papers were not considered to be in order were detained by army units and taken to the Arena Avenue barracks, where – under the guise of interrogation – they were beaten mercilessly.
After the war, several witnesses testified that in early November 1944 a young man was beaten to death at the barracks. Peter Balazs, a young Jewish man, had been drafted for forced-labour service in April 1944, but did not show up at the appointed place and time. Instead, he lived in Budapest using false (Christian) identity papers. On 8 November 1944 he left home and disappeared.
Peter’s father, Dezso, a lawyer from the outlying suburb of Budafok, subsequently spoke to one of the witnesses who claimed that a young man had been killed by the army at around this time. In April 1948 Dezso Balazs officially accused Karoly Zentai of involvement in his son’s murder. Dezso did not know Zentai, but had been given his description by an acquaintance. In his accusation Dezso declared that Zentai had been his son’s Cub Scout leader.
“My son was a winter-term student at the Industrial High School for Construction. He was a certified assistant mason,” he stated.
Zentai knew that my son visited the Union of Construction Workers and that he took part in the resistance movement. He mentioned a number of times to his fellow officers that he would like to get hold of my son. On 8 November 1944 Zentai caught sight of my son on a tram on Bajcsy Zsilinszky Avenue, arrested him and took him to the barracks at 51 Arena Avenue.
According to Dezso’s account, Zentai took Peter to a room:
There, from 3 pm onwards he and Lajos Nagy [a fellow officer] assaulted him. This lasted from 3 pm to 7.30 pm. By 7.30 pm my son was dying. He was lying on the floor of the room next to the orderly room and rattling in pain. Zentai, Nagy and Bela Mader [the commanding officer] went to drink some wine at this time. Janos Mahr, a soldier, was left with the dying man and was told not to let anyone inside. Mahr went in, put a blanket under my son’s head and then, seeing that blood had blocked his throat, asked Mader whether it would not be good to call a doctor. Mader replied that this would be unnecessary as the boy would die anyway; this was already determined. Janos Mahr was then sent away.
The information Dezso Balazs had acquired was detailed, right down to the presence of six Jewish forced labourers at the barracks:
Mader called the six forced labourers in. One by one he took them into the room where my son, covered with a blanket, was rattling in deadly pain ... and pointing at my dying son he said: “Listen to this beautiful music! This is already done. This is what will happen to you. You, too, will sing like this.” He then brought in his revolver, placed six bullets in it and ordered the six forced labour workers to say the Hebrew prayer for the dying, as he would execute them. He didn’t execute them as he said he was tired and the execution would be the next day. Half an hour later my son died.
Zentai arrived at that time. At first they didn’t know what to do with the body. They wanted to bury it in the yard of the barracks, but later they changed their mind. They decided to throw the body in the Danube. Zentai ordered Sergeant Jozsef Monori to hitch a team of horses to a cart ... Zentai and Nagy put my son’s body on the cart, covered it with hay and took it along Arena Avenue down to the Danube. There they tied stones to the body and threw it in the water.
Dezso Balazs’s accusation stands only if it is supported by evidence. Judgement, if rendered, is the responsibility of a court, and the Hungarian authorities will need to determine whether it was Peter Balazs who was arrested and beaten to death; whether Karoly Zentai was one of those responsible; and whether the person who resides in Perth today is one and the same.
In media reports, Zentai has not denied that he was the military officer in question, but has said that at the time of the events he had already left Budapest. This is unlikely, as a soldier usually leaves his unit only if he is transferred or goes AWOL. Zentai has not claimed that either situation applied.
According to his commander, Bela Mader, their unit left for Hanta on 8 November 1944. However, another unit member, Sandor Lippkai, stated that they left sometime between 10 and 15 November. According to yet another, Laszlo Moricz, the unit moved to Hanta on 11 November.
After the war, Captain Mader and Lieutenant Lajos Nagy were called to account for the killing of Peter Balazs. No proof of their action was found, but this is understandable – it would be unusual if they had kept an official list of those arrested, or had photographed them, or had prepared minutes of the interrogations. Even if such documents once existed, they may well have been destroyed during the retreat to Germany, a few months later.
Mader was extradited to Hungary by the American army in 1945. On 21 March 1946 he was sentenced to forced labour for life, but was released in September 1956. Nagy was accused when he returned from captivity in Russia, in mid 1947. He was sentenced to death on 26 February 1948 for several crimes, including Balazs’s murder, but this was later commuted to forced labour for life. Nagy left Hungary at the end of 1956.
Some of the witnesses in the Mader and Nagy cases served in their unit, while others were Jews they had arrested. The testimonies coincide in some areas, and in others are complementary. They demonstrate that the unit regularly patrolled Budapest, checking people’s identities, and arresting and beating suspects.
Endre Kalmar stated that on 15 October, following a new anti-Jewish proclamation, he and neighbouring Jews removed the yellow star from their clothes and houses. A patrolman later came and took them to the barracks, where Nagy and Mader beat them. Peter Bogati corroborated this: “On the evening of 15 October 1944 I was taken – together with 40 others – to the Arena Avenue barracks. After Captain Mader had interrogated us, about ten people remained, including me. There they turned us to face the wall and the officers beat us.”
Jozsef Monori, a clerk in the unit’s headquarters, testified:
I know that after 19 October alert squads started from the barracks. In fact, from time to time officers patrolled the city with the task of bringing in Jews, soldiers who had gone AWOL and forced labourers. I heard that those people brought in were beaten, tortured; however, I did not see this with my own eyes, only that they were bandaged as a result. According to what I remember, there were days when they brought in seven to eight people.
In February 1948 another unit member, Miklos Polonyi, testified that in Ostffyasszonyfa, in western Hungary, Nagy had boasted about the operations conducted near the Arena Avenue barracks, during which many people were arrested and beaten, and that he, too, participated in these beatings. “He also mentioned that one person, who they had beaten to death, had been thrown into the Danube. He said he had someone helping him: Zentai.”
Janos Mahr, a soldier in the unit, testified that Nagy and Mader had taken part in beating an unnamed young man, but did not mention Zentai. He stated that his workmates had told him that the man was being beaten with boxing gloves, although he did not see this himself:
The beating lasted for several hours, during which we weren’t even allowed to enter ... Just before the 8 pm lights out, the sounds of beating stopped. At lights out I went to my room to lie down, but I was called to the office. When I presented myself, Mader and Nagy ... took me into the inner room, where the young man brought in during the afternoon was lying unconscious on the floor in the middle of a large puddle of water, beaten to the point where he could not be recognised ... when he was brought in there were no signs of any visible wounds on him and he appeared totally healthy.
Mader ordered me to stay in the room. Nagy supplemented this order by telling me to stay there till they returned, in case the young man regained consciousness. I was so surprised I couldn’t say a word. After this, Mader and Nagy left the office. I tried to help the young man somehow, but it was clear that he was dying. He was totally unconscious, he rattled, his eyes were already glassy. Mader [and Nagy] returned approximately one hour later, when I asked them whether a doctor should be called, as in my opinion he would suffocate from the congealed blood in his throat.
Mader declined, telling me that it was not my business, then stepped close to the young man and started to kick him, telling him to get up. He even threatened the young man that if he did not get up, he would bury him in a large ditch. Meanwhile, Nagy told me to leave and called my attention to the fact that I should not speak to anyone about this. All this happened the week before we left for Hanta.
According to the testimony of Dr Jeno Horvath, Lajos Nagy later boasted several times that he had sent out patrolmen to bring Jews to the barracks, where he boxed them on the nose and head. “He also said that they had beaten a Jew so hard that the person had died.”
In 1947 Nagy himself recalled a 17- or 18-year-old Jewish boy who had been brought in by Zentai, and who was the son of a lawyer or physician from Budafok.
This must have happened around 3 pm. Although I was in the barracks with Mader at around 4 pm, I did not know about it at the time. I found out about it only around 8 pm when I returned to the barracks. It was then that Zentai told me that the boy and his family were old acquaintances of his; that he had taken him off a tram ... brought him in and beaten him.
In evaluating this testimony, it must be noted that Lajos Nagy was already imprisoned and awaiting trial. Subsequently, Nagy stated that he had given his testimony in accordance with the interrogator’s wishes, because he wanted to get away and had been promised contact with his family.
Bela Mader, the unit’s commanding officer, made two statements about the Balazs killing, the first on 22 March 1948:
As far as I know ... Zentai, too, had an active role in the case of the young man who was beaten to death in the Arena Avenue barracks ... when I arrived at the office and this young man was already dying lying on the floor, [Zentai] was present together with Lajos Nagy, and he was checking the dying man’s pulse ... it was [Zentai] who told me that he had arrested this young man in the street and had brought him to the barracks.
Subsequently, Mader claimed that he had gone home to his family at around 4 pm that day.
Of the company officers only Zentai stayed on. As far as I remember, when I left the barracks there were approximately ten to 12 forced labourers in the corridor and in the office, whose data were being taken down by Zentai. I have no knowledge that Peter Balazs was amongst them. I returned to the barracks only at 11 pm. The orderly officer reported and then I went into my office. At that time Zentai and Nagy were also there, as well as four or five forced labourers. In the office next door I then caught sight of a man who was lying on the floor and rattled. Who this person was or what had happened to him I did not ask either of my underlings, but I called the forced labourers to the office and told them to look, this is what will happen to them.
Imre Zoltan, who was taken to the barracks at the beginning of November with five other forced labourers, had a different recollection. He recalled being taken from the cell to the unit’s office, where Mader, Nagy and Zentai were present. Zoltan’s description is consistent with Dezso Balazs’s accusation: according to his account, Mader called the rattling sounds of the dying man “music”; he pretended that he was preparing for executions; and he ordered that Kaddish be recited.
In Mader’s account:
Afterwards I ordered the forced labourers back to the cells and ordered the officers to lie down. I, myself, retired to my office, drank a couple of glasses of wine, and lay down at 2-2.30 am. In the morning I got up around 7 and went out to the barracks’ courtyard. The daily officer informed me that nothing unusual had happened during the night.
According to others, though, something definitely happened. In his evidence, Sergeant Jozsef Monori described how he was called to the office around 11 pm and ordered to hitch the horses to the cart and wait.
Nagy and Zentai brought out a dead body ... we put it on the cart and then covered it with hay. Nagy and Zentai sat on the coachbox, I sat on the coach’s side, and they drove out via Arena Avenue to the Danube. During the ride Nagy and Zentai discussed that they shouldn’t have hit the boy as hard as they had. Upon reaching the banks of the Danube we met a policeman; however, he did not stop us. We drove down to the riverbank where they took the dead body and threw it in the Danube.
Was Peter Balazs the youth arrested on the tram on 8 November 1944, taken to the barracks and tortured to death?
Two witnesses’ statements shed light on this. Janos Mahr said: “I was questioned in the main trial against Lajos Nagy on 26 February 1948, and there I was shown a photograph of two young men. I clearly recognised ... the young man who had been brought in and who had been maltreated by Nagy and Mader.” The statement from which this quote comes included Zentai’s name in several places. Wherever the name appeared, the letter X had been typed repeatedly over it. From this we can perhaps deduce that Zentai was mentioned at Janos Mahr’s interrogation, but Mahr did not remember him. He did, however, recognise the victim. At Nagy’s trial, Jozsef Monori also recognised the young man who had been taken to the barracks that day: he identified Peter Balazs.
On 21 April 1948 the public prosecutor requested that the Budapest People’s Court issue an arrest warrant for Zentai, alleging his involvement in war crimes and stating that he was in the American zone of Germany. The court issued the warrant on 29 April and requested that the Minister of Justice arrange Zentai’s extradition. On 20 May the ministry announced that this had been undertaken through diplomatic channels, but the extradition never occurred. It is not known why.
Dezso Balazs went to remarkable lengths to bring his son’s murderers to trial. He died in 1970, with the job only partly accomplished. Many years later, his family gave his papers to the Simon Wiesenthal Center before it launched Operation Last Chance. It tracked Karoly Zentai down in Perth, and began the belated effort to bring to justice the last man accused of Peter Balazs’s murder.
At the end of his accusation against Zentai, Dezso Balazs had written:
There is no repercussion that can heal the wound in my heart, as this is a wound that will never heal. They killed the 18-year-old boy, who was still a child, whom I still rewarded if he was good and punished if he was bad. They killed him, those whom I will not call wild animals because I do not wish to insult wild animals.
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