Hungarian authorities have detained, grilled and put under house arrest a 97-year-old who tops the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s dwindling wanted list of surviving suspected Nazi war criminals.
Laszlo Csatary, accused by the Wiesenthal Centre of organising the deportation to their deaths of some 16,000 Jews from the ghetto of Kosice in present-day Slovakia in World War II, protested his innocence.
“Our viewpoint is that at this age, being under house arrest is already quite a shock,” state prosecutor Tibor Ibolya said on Wednesday. “We have to make sure that this man remains alive and is able to stand trial.”
“One of his arguments in his defence is that he was obeying orders.”
Clutching a plastic bag, dressed in a grey jacket and surprisingly sprightly for his age, the former senior police officer said nothing as he was whisked away in a car by two friends or relatives.
This followed his early morning arrest in the Hungarian capital Budapest and several hours of questioning by an investigating magistrate at a military prosecution office.
“The suspect is in good physical and mental health. He is being co-operative. He was surprised (about being arrested) but he expected to be questioned,” Ibolya said.
Csatary, full name Laszlo Csizsik-Csatary, helped run the Jewish ghetto in Kosice, a town now in Slovakia personally visited in April 1944 by Adolf Eichmann, a key figure in the Nazi’s Final Solution, the Wiesenthal Centre says.
While there between 1941 and 1944, Csatary beat, brutalised and sent 16,000 Jews to their deaths in Ukraine and to the gas chambers at the Auschwitz extermination camp, it says.
In 1948, a Czechoslovakian court condemned Csatary to death in absentia but he made it to Canada where he lived and worked as an art dealer before being stripped of his citizenship there in the 1990s.
‘Guilt not diminished’
He ended up in Budapest where he has lived freely ever since, until the Wiesenthal Centre alerted Hungarian authorities last year.
British tabloid The Sun raised attention to his case with a report at the weekend after tracking down the old man, photographing him and confronting him at his front door.
Acting on the information provided by the Wiesenthal Centre, which was supplemented by fresh evidence last week, prosecutors began an investigation in September.
Efraim Zuroff, the Wiesenthal Centre’s chief Nazi-hunter, welcomed the arrest and urged Hungarian authorities “to complete the rest of the judicial process and bring Csatary to justice as quickly as possible.”
He said: “This is the debt owed to his many victims who were tortured and sent to be murdered at Auschwitz. The passage of time does not diminish the guilt of the killers and old age should not afford protection to the perpetrators of Holocaust crimes.”
The fact that Csatary lived freely in Hungary for some 15 years and the lack of progress by prosecutors also added to worries about the direction of the EU member state under right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Almost exactly a year ago, a court in Budapest acquitted Hungarian Sandor Kepiro, 97, of charges of ordering the execution of over 30 Jews and Serbs in the Serbian town of Novi Sad in January 1942.
The Wiesenthal Centre, which had also listed Kepiro as the most wanted Nazi war criminal and helped bring him to court, described the verdict as an “outrageous miscarriage of justice.” Six weeks later Kepiro died.
Recent months, meanwhile, have seen something of a public rehabilitation of controversial figures, most notably of Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s dictator from 1920 until falling out with his erstwhile ally Adolf Hitler in 1944.
Anti-Semitic writers like Albert Wass and Jozsef Nyiro, a keen supporter of the brutal Arrow Cross regime installed in power by the Nazis in 1944, have also been reintroduced into the curriculum for schools.
The decision by the speaker of the Hungarian parliament, Orban ally Laszlo Kover, to attend a ceremony in May honouring Nyiro, prompted Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel to return Hungary’s highest honour in disgust.
Holocaust survivor Wiesel, 83, said “it has become increasingly clear that Hungarian authorities are encouraging the whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes in Hungary’s past.”
The speaker of Israel’s parliament followed this up by withdrawing an invitation to Kover to a ceremony this week in Israel paying tribute to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Budapest who saved Jews during the war.