Suspected War Criminals in Australia

August 20, 2012 by J-Wire Staff
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The late Leslie Caplan’s book “The Road to the Menzies Inquiry: Suspected War Criminals in Australia” has been launched at the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Jeremy Jones spoke at the launch:

Sarah Tritsch, Jeremy Jones and Jonathan Caplan

“I remember when I first was told that Australia – my country – was a haven for fugitives of the very worst kind:  the perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

As a result of a court case in the United States of America, Konrads Kalejs faced deportation for involvement in a unit established with the sole, dedicated purpose of killing innocents. He nominated Australia as the place he wished to return to, should his attempts to stay in the US prove unsuccessful.

I was with then Executive Council of Australian Jewry president  Leslie Caplan in New York when we met a brilliant, passionate young man who briefed us about the Kalejs case but also alerted us to the possibility that there  were, tens, hundreds or even thousands of perpetrators of similar crimes living in Australia,and at subsequent meetings where we heard from researchers from Canada, the USA and Israel.

Leslie reported back to his colleagues within days of  our return to Australia and the next day flagged the issue with a sceptical Prime Minister. We then continued with research and representations to government and media.

Then ABC journalist  Mark Aarons broadcast the result of his many years of diligent research, establishing beyond doubt that Australian governments, through commission and omission, had been complicit in allowing torturers, murderers and architects of the most gross inhumanity to come and live,in peace and without fear of consequences, in Australia.

My  Australia.  Our Australia. In the country that had taken in so many good and decent people who had rebuilt their lives and rebuilt the nation. Australia – which held itself up to the world as an exemplar of decency.

There had been a fickle, cynical abrogation of morality.

There had been a gross distortion of decency, allowing fugitives to take places of refugees.

There had been choices made under the shadow of the Cold war, political judgements made for envisaged short-term gain, eyes averted by people who had responsibility to protect the values in which our society is founded. With the result being a moral stain on our country.

During the 1940s and 1950s, murderers came to this country under anonymity. Others came as there was a belief that they offered some advantage in the battle with the post-World War II   evil of Communism.

Earle Hoffman, Sophie Caplan with Professor Gus Lehrer

In the 1960s, Australia held itself up as a place where a person could forget his or her past –and this was twisted and manipulated from an assertion of a quality of life proffered to victims of war’s ravages in to a rationalisation for allowing criminals to escape prosecution, as when  the Ervin Viks avoided extradition to Estonia.

After it had became abundantly clear that individuals who should never have been permitted to leave Europe came here freely, became permanent residents, then citizens, the dilemma for policy makers was how to uphold competing principles of each citizen, regardless of place of birth, being equal, and of dealing with those citizens who, in a minimally moral world, would never have been permitted to come here in the first place.

Jeremy Jones, Professor Konrad Kweit and Dr Gideon Caplan

There were many dilemmas, not least the opposition of some vocal, decent survivors of the Nazis attempt at Genocide who did not want a public debate on something they wanted to leave in the past. There were genuine, intelligent representatives of Eastern and Central European immigrant groups who wanted guilty people prosecuted but did not want their communities to be subjects of vilification. There were politicians who saw the cold war as the over-riding issue and while sympathetic where not enthusiastic. It is a tremendous tribute to  Leslie Caplan that he navigated these areas with compassion and principle, and made allies out of critics.

The only politically achievable  compromise – and having spent hundreds of hours engaged with bureaucrats and politicians arguing about this I know just how tough it was to achieve – was to amend Australian law to permit the prosecution in this country of the men and women who, as part of  the Nazi terror, were directly involved in murder and other vile criminality. This did not rule out extradition, although at the time of the Cold War this was seen as an unlikely option.

We now know, in no small part due to the work of Leslie Caplan,  President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the later documentation by Leslie Caplan, student, that there were hundreds of people who came here and slept peacefully at night, without any concern that they would ever be brought to account for their crimes. Due to the work of a very few number of people, with Leslie Caplan so important amongst them, at least some of them lived their final days in fear that justice would one day come calling. Yes, it is more than unfortunate that no person was successfully prosecuted under Australian law, but it is also important to recognise that the Menzies process allowed for history to be told truthfully and moral ideals to be asserted.

This book is timely, with the decision by the High Court this week allowing Charles Zentai to not face court in Hungary over allegations of war crimes. Putting aside the question of interpretation of the law, this decision almost screams from the rooftops that Australia lacks the will to redress a great historic wrong. I await the next steps, from the Hungary and Australia. It would not do any harm if those deciding whether they should be acting take the time to read Leslie Caplan’s book.”

Jeremy Jones AM, Director of International and of Community Affairs for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, was the Executive Director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry from 1985-87 and subsequently occupied a series of leadership positions, including the Council’s Presidency



One Response to “Suspected War Criminals in Australia”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    Leslie Caplan was one of the brightest, greatest leaders of our community. A curageous, uncompromising Jew, a brilliant intellect. Tough, yet the mildest of manners and speech, Leslie knew how to inspire his contemporaries here in Australia and abroad. I want to think that I was a friend

    An example hard to follow !

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