In the popular current movie Music Box, a Chicago lawyer played by Jessica Lange is asked to defend her Hungarian-American father against charges that he carried out atrocities for the Nazis in wartime Hungary. In the film, the lawyer’s belief in her father’s innocence is shaken as the evidence against him mounts. Last week, Ontario Supreme Court Justice Archie Campbell instructed jurors in Canada’s first war-crimes trial not to see Music Box—or to put the movie out of their minds if they had already seen it.
Indeed, as the trial of 77-year-old Hungarianborn Toronto restaurateur Imre Finta resumed following a Christmas break, Campbell urged the jury to avoid all media reports related to the case. For his part, Finta has pleaded not guilty to charges of robbery and manslaughter as well as to charges of kidnapping and confining 8,617 Jews in Hungary in 1944. His trial, which continues this May. But Campbell’s -
instructions underscored the emotionally charged atmosphere that still surrounds the events of the Holocaust half a century later.
The sensitive issue of whether to prosecute elderly Canadians accused of being former agents of Nazi repression has taken on a higher profile in recent years. In December, 1986, after 22 months of inquiry, a royal commission headed by Quebec Superior Court Justice Jules Deschênes recommended immediate action against 20 alleged war criminals living in Canada. The Deschênes commission also urged investigators to look more deeply into the war records of another 218 suspects.
Among Deschênes’s concerns: the danger that elderly key witnesses against many possible defendants might die of old age before the accused reach court. Now, despite a steppedup effort to track down and prosecute possible war criminals, critics say that Deschênes’s fears are being realized. Said David Matas, Winnipeg-based senior counsel to the Jewish service organization B’nai B’rith: “Many witnesses and accused have died, and many documents have just disappeared. We are in a race
against a deadline, and for some that deadline has already passed.”
For its part, Ottawa responded to the Deschênes report in September, 1987, by amending the Criminal Code to permit prosecutions of
Canadians suspected of war crimes committed outside Canada. Previously, the code had permitted prosecutions only for actions on Canadian soil. The government also set up special teams of police and prosecutors to investigate war-crimes allegations. Currently, 13 lawyers and six historians working for the justice department and at least 22 _
RCMP officers are assigned to that task. And according to William Hobson, director of the justice department’s crimes against humanity and war-crimes section, high-priority investigations of 45 suspected war criminals are under way. Hobson added that, within the next six months, he will make recommendations to Justice Minister Douglas Lewis on whether charges should proceed on a number of what Hobson called “significant” cases.
So far, however, only one
other person has been arrested in connection with alleged wartime atrocities. On Dec. 18, Michael Pawlowski, 72, a retired carpentry foreman who lives in Renfrew, an Ottawa Valley town, was taken into custody and charged with the 1942 murder of 410 Jews and 80 non-Jewish Poles in his native Byelorussia, in the western part of the Soviet Union. Pawlowski, who was later released on bail, is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 23.
Finta, who was also released on $100,000 bail, has been sitting quietly in court almost every day since his trial began on Nov. 22, listening to Holocaust survivors and historians testify about the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944. Finta, then a captain with the Hungarian mounted police, is accused of forcing Jews from the village of Szeged into overcrowded railcars bound for Nazi death and labor camps, including the infamous Auschwitz in Poland. Many did not survive the journey. After the war, Finta spent a year as a prisoner of the Americans, then worked in several hotels and restaurants before moving to Canada. In 1953, he opened the Candlelight Cafe— later renamed the Moulin Rouge—in downtown Toronto, where he dined with and was photographed with such famous patrons as jazz musician Louis Armstrong and French actor Maurice Chevalier. Finta sold his share in the restaurant in 1971.
The cautious pace of federal prosecutions has led some Jewish leaders and opposition politicians to accuse the government of not taking advantage of all available avenues to bring suspected war criminals swiftly to justice. Matas, who has written a book, Justice Delayed: Nazi War Criminals in Canada, has urged Ottawa to adopt new measures to speed up the process. For one thing, he says, the government should act on another Deschênes recommendation and allow investigators access to confidential old age pension records in order to see whether potential suspects or witnesses are still alive. As well, Matas challenged the government to adopt some of the more expeditious tactics proposed by Deschênes, including withdrawing citizenship and deporting those convicted of lying on their immigration papers, and extradition.
Since 1987, Ottawa has taken that kind of action only once. Last spring, the Federal _ Court of Canada held hearings into whether Dutch-born Jacob Luitjens, 70, should be stripped of his citizenship for allegedly lying when he entered Canada in 1961. Luitjens, a former University of British Columbia botany instructor, was convicted in his absence by a Dutch court in 1948 for collaborating with the Nazis, and sentenced to = life imprisonment. The chal| lenge to his Canadian citizen| ship is still before the court.
I Other critics claim that the I war-crimes unit, prompted o by a desire to minimize the
chances of losing in court, is being too meticulous in the way that it is assembling evidence. Said Liberal justice critic and former solicitor general Robert Kaplan: “I have a horrible feeling that the government wants to try one or two cases to test the validity of the legislation and then proceed to others. But given the age of the criminals, victims and witnesses, these cases can’t wait much longer.” Added Nazihunter Sol Littman, the Toronto-based Canadian representative for the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles: “Each trial will be a masterpiece, and masterpieces frequently take a long time to complete. In the meantime, the biological clock is ticking on.”
But some Jewish leaders are more supportive of the government’s strategy. While he would like to see the process speeded up, Canadian Jewish Congress president Les Scheininger says he is sensitive to the problems of gathering evidence of war crimes in many of the Eastern Bloc countries where they occurred. He added, “I’m satisfied that the people working in the justice department are sincere, committed and hardworking.” For his part, war-crimes unit director Hobson said critics must acknowledge that, when Deschênes issued his report, even the judge recognized that the government had a “monumental investigative undertaking ahead” if it expected to bring war criminals to account. Hobson said that the experience of other war-crimes units in countries such as the United States and West Germany showed that individual investigations took anywhere from two to six years to complete. Canada’s top Nazi-hunter also made no apologies for the careful manner with which his unit assembled cases. Said Hobson: “It would do violence to the community if we rushed ahead with a prosecution without the proper investigation and found we got the wrong person.”
According to Hobson, Canada’s war-crimes legislation is “the most comprehensive of its kind in the world.” Indeed, Hobson noted that it is “the only [legislation] that deals with modern war crimes.” As a result, he added, the law could also be used to prosecute members of Cambodia’s illfamed Khmer Rouge—responsible for an estimated one million deaths in the Southeast Asian nation between 1975 and 1979—or Latin American death squads, should either turn up in Canada. However, Hobson would not say whether any such individuals are currently under investigation.
Still, for critics such as Matas, the glacial pace of painstaking prosecutions sends an unwelcome message to society at large. Declared Matas: “We have to deal with these murders like any others. Otherwise, we’re saying killing is wrong, unless you’re killing Jewish victims.” With that kind of chilling concern still being raised by some Canadians, it will clearly be some time before justice is seen to be done for the victims—and authors—of the Holocaust.
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