September 2005  
“Operation: Last Chance” – Update #6


Slightly more than three years have passed since “Operation: Last Chance” was initially launched (July 8, 2002) in Vilnius , Lithuania . To date it had already been initiated in nine different countries and we can begin to assess its results and impact.

It was clear to us from the beginning, that we were embarking on a project which ostensibly had a narrow focus - facilitating the prosecution and punishment of Nazi war criminals – but actually had considerable potential to address far broader issues with wide-ranging implications. In that respect, while the attempts to identify, expose and help prosecute Holocaust perpetrators were intrinsically of great practical, judicial, and moral significance, they were also the backdrop for the struggle to ensure historical truth in post-Communist societies and an important element in the ongoing struggle against burgeoning European anti-Semitism. Indeed, the methods chosen to publicize “Operation: Last Chance” - press conferences, ad campaigns, and op-ed pieces – were all tools which had the ability to focus public attention not only on the search for the killers, but also to initiate and foster a public debate on the broader issues of local complicity in Holocaust crimes and the role of anti-Semitism in the annihilation of European Jewry.

In summarizing the results achieved to date by “Operation: Last Chance,” the obvious place to begin is in terms of the prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators. To date, we have made considerable progress in two major cases – one in Hungary and another in Croatia .

The first is the case of Charles (Karoly) Zentai, an Hungarian army officer who is accused of the murder of at least one Jewish teenager in Budapest and conducted manhunts of Jews in the fall of 1944 when the fascist Arrow Cross ruled Hungary. Zentai escaped to Australia in 1950 but we tracked him down to a suburb of Perth , where he has lived for the past 55 years, after receiving evidence regarding his crimes from Peter Balasz's brother, who currently lives in Budapest . Based on the evidence supplied by the Wiesenthal Center , the Hungarian government issued an international warrant for the arrest of Charles Zentai in March 2005, and shortly thereafter submitted a request to the Australian government for his extradition to stand trial in Hungary . In August 2005, Australian Justice Minister Chris Ellison signed the extradition request and an appeal process by Zentai will commence on September 21, 2005 in Perth . We are hopeful that he will be extradited to Hungary before the end of the year and will be put on trial in early 2006.

The second case is of the chief of police of the Croatian city of Požega . During the years 1941-1942, Milivoj Ašner played an extremely active role in the persecution and deportation to concentration camps where they were murdered of the city's 300 Jews and hundreds of Serbs and Gypsies. On June 30, 2004, the day that the Wiesenthal Center and Targum Shlishi launched “Operation: Last Chance” in Croatia we submitted a dossier documenting Ašner's crimes in Požega, which was prepared by researcher Alen Budaj of Zagreb and contained copies of anti-Jewish / Serb and Gypsy decrees signed by Ašner himself, to Croatian President Stjepan Mesic and to Attorney-General Mladen

Bajic. A criminal investigation was officially initiated against Ašner, who shortly thereafter escaped to Austria , where he had lived for four and a half decades after World War II to escape prosecution by the Yugoslav authorities.

In meetings with Bajic and Požega district court officials in July 2005, we learned that Ašner will be indicted in the near future and that Croatia will ask for his extradition to stand trial in Požega. If he is not extradited, Croatia may choose to prosecute him in absentia. At the same time, Ašner who is living at Paulitschgasse 8/III in Klagenfurt , is also under investigation in Austria , which also indicated that it is seriously considering his prosecution.

In addition to these two cases several other suspects are currently under investigation in Germany , Romania , Lithuania , and other countries, which might result in prosecutions. To date, we have received the names of 389 suspects, 81 of whom have been submitted to local prosecutors after being verified and investigated by the Wiesenthal Center.

Beyond the practical progress in terms of prosecution, “Operation: Last Chance” has been able to focus public attention on the inter-related issues of local complicity in the crimes of the Holocaust, the rewriting of history textbooks in newly-democratic Central and Eastern Europe, and the manner in which post-Soviet and post-Communist societies respond to Holocaust-related issues such as: acknowledgement of guilt, commemoration of the victims, documentation of the history of the Holocaust, restitution and education. Whether it was by mounting the most extensive ad campaign ever launched on a Holocaust issue in Romania or setting off a national debate on the validity and necessity of the “Operation: Last Chance” hotline in Poland, which considered itself exclusively a nation of victims and not of perpetrators, this initiative has captured the attention of millions of Europeans and has squarely put Holocaust issues on the national agendas of at least nine countries, which is precisely what Targum Shlishi and the Wiesenthal Center hoped to achieve by launching the project.