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World's Most Wanted Suspected Nazi War Criminal Dies

  • Stefan Bos

Hungarian Laszlo Csatary, suspected of war crimes against Jews during World War II, leaves the prosecution building in Budapest, July 18, 2012.

Hungarian Laszlo Csatary, suspected of war crimes against Jews during World War II, leaves the prosecution building in Budapest, July 18, 2012.

A 98-year-old Hungarian man who topped the dwindling list of surviving Nazi war crimes suspects has died in the hospital while awaiting trial for allegedly sending nearly 16,000 Jews to the death camps. The announcement about Laszlo Csatary's death was made on Monday Budapest.

Laszlo Csatary's lawyer said the Nazi war crimes suspect died in the hospital over the weekend after contracting pneumonia. His death came as a setback for Holocaust survivors seeking some justice.

Csatary was allegedly involved in the deportations of as many as 15,700 Jews from a town in present-day Slovakia to Nazi death camps during World War II. After being sentenced to death in absentia in 1948, he made it to Canada, where he lived and worked as an art dealer before being stripped of his citizenship in the 1990s.

He returned to Hungary, where he lived undisturbed for years. Prosecutors only began investigating his case in late 2011 after pressure from the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Csatary was eventually charged with involvement and assisting in the 1944 deportations of Jews from a ghetto in Kassa, now known as Kosice.

The former police officer also allegedly "regularly beat the interned Jews with his bare hands and whipped them with a dog-whip without any special reasons, regardless of their sex, age or health."

Csatary was placed under house arrest in June of last year, and activists demanded he be put on trial.

"We shall never forget," shouted both elderly and younger people outside his home in Budapest while they formed a human chain.

Eventually, a court suspended the trial, saying Csatary had already been convicted.

Some have also questioned whether it was fair to prosecute a frail elderly man.

But Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office, believes it's never too late for justice. His organization wants to continue the hunt for the dozens of suspected Nazi war criminals still alive.

“When you look at a man like Csatary, don't see an old frail individual," he said. "Think of someone at the height of his physical powers who was devoting all his energy to the mass murder of innocent people. Old age should not offer protection to people who committed such heinous crimes.”

Zuroff says many Holocaust victims never had the opportunity to become old and frail because they were murdered in Auschwitz and other death camps.

Csatary maintained his innocence to the end. The Csatary case unfolded amid concerns within the influential Catholic Church about rising anti-Semitism in Hungary, which was a close ally of Nazi Germany during World War II.

Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo has made it a point to participate in the annual Budapest March of the Living to remember the Holocaust, in which 600,000 Hungarian Jews were among the millions of victims.

Questions have also been raised as to why it took prosecutors so long to start a case against Csatary.

Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute in Budapest, says the reluctance was only partly due to legal difficulties. Kreko told VOA News that the former communist regimes in Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe discouraged those countries from facing their troubled history.

"If a society was not forced to face its past in the last 40 years, it's a difficult job to do afterward, I mean that the acts of facing the past in Germany for example is something that is not very typical for many East European countries that face these problems," he said. "In Hungary, there is a very typical narrative - and I think it exists in other countries, as well - saying: 'We did not play a role in the Holocaust; it was the Germans, or it was the [pro-Nazi Hungarian] Arrow Cross movement."

The analyst adds that Hungarian authorities were extremely cooperative in the procedures of the Holocaust and helping the overall machinery. He says that high-ranking Nazi official Adolf Eichmann labeled Hungary one of his favorite countries in his memoirs because of the cooperation of its pro-Nazi government.

Kreko fears that far-right Hungarians will turn Csatary's grave into a pilgrimage site.

Still, he says most Hungarians view him as a war criminal.

Yet with the number of Holocaust survivors, and Nazis, rapidly dwindling, the analyst and the Jewish community are concerned about whether the lessons of the Holocaust will be adequately taught to future generations.