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Laszlo Csatáry: Nazi war-crimes suspect, tracked down after 60 years of obscurity

Csatáry was charged with sending 12,000 Jews to Auschwitz to be murdered  by the Nazis

Laszlo Csatáry, a Hungarian Nazi war-crimes suspect, who evaded capture for over 60 years and at the time of his arrest in July last year was regarded as the “most wanted living Nazi”, has died while awaiting trial, aged 98. He had recently contracted pneumonia, which was the direct cause of death.

According to Jerusalem’s Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Csatáry was accused of “playing a key role” in the organisation and deportation of over 15,700 Jews to Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland during the Second World War. He faced charges relating to his wartime activities in both Hungary and in neighbouring Slovakia.

Csatáry had always strenuously denied the allegations, claiming he was merely an intermediary between Hungarian and German officials and was not involved in war crimes.

Efraim Zuroff, a Nazi war-crimes hunter from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, who helped, with the aid of The Sun newspaper, to track Csatáry down to a suburb of Budapest last year, expressed his disappointment. “It is a shame that Csatáry... a totally unrepentant Holocaust perpetrator, who was finally indicted in his homeland for his crimes, ultimately eluded justice at the very last minute,” he said.

Following his apprehension, Csatáry was finally charged by Hungarian prosecutors, in June of this year, of beating and whipping Jews with his bare hands and a dog whip as the police commander of the Kosice internment camp, before sending approximately 12,000 to be murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz and other death camps in 1944. Kosice, known at the time as Kassa, was the first camp to be established after the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944. The town is now in Slovakia.

Prosecutors said that Csatáry, a Hungarian police officer at the time, had “deliberately provided help to the unlawful executions and torture committed against Jews deported to concentration camps... from Kosice.”

Slovakia was seeking his extradition from Hungary so it could formally sentence him, although, with the abolition of the death penalty, it intended to imprison him. The legal proceedings in Hungary were halted last month on the grounds of double jeopardy.

László Csizsik-Csatáry was born, in 1915, in the small village of Mány, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Little is known of his upbringing, but by 1944 he was the Royal Hungarian Police commander in the city of Kassa in north-eastern Hungary.

After the war, a Czech court sentenced Csatáry to death in absentia in 1948 for war crimes and the brutalisation of inhabitants of the city. At the time, he had already fled to Canada, where he claimed to be a Yugoslav national and took up residency, working as an art dealer in Montreal and Toronto. He became a citizen in 1955. But then he disappeared again in 1997, when he was stripped of his citizenship for lying on his application. Csatáry returned to his native Hungary, where he lived a quiet life until he was located in Budapest, based on a tip-off received by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in September 2011. His address was exposed by Sun reporters in July 2012, but he again denied allegations against him. Hungarian authorities arrested him days later.

In late July 2012, Slovak Justice Minister Tomás Borec told reporters that Slovakia wanted Csatáry to be tried in their country. In addition to the Auschwitz deportations, Csatáry was implicated in the deportation of 300 Jews from Kassa in 1941 to the Ukraine to be killed. However, in August 2012, the Budapest Prosecutor’s Office dropped these charges, saying Csatáry was not in Kassa at the time and lacked the rank to organise such transportation. In January of this year, it was reported that Slovak police had found a witness to corroborate other charges relating to deportations of 15,700 Jews from Kassa and its surroundings from May 1944.

In March, the Slovak County Court in Košice changed the 1948 verdict in Csatáry’s case; the death penalty was commuted to a life sentence in order to make the verdict executable. In June, prosecutors in Hungary accused Csatáry of war crimes, saying that he had helped to deport Jews to Auschwitz. The Budapest Chief Prosecutor’s Office said, “He is charged with the unlawful execution and torture of people, (thus) committing war crimes partly as a perpetrator, partly as an accomplice.”

However, on 8 July, the Budapest higher court suspended his case because “Csatáry had already been sentenced for the crimes included in the proceedings, in former Czechoslovakia in 1948”. The court added it needed to be established whether the 1948 ruling, a death sentence changed to life imprisonment later, could be valid in Hungary.

Zuroff later questioned the Hungarian authorities’ desire for justice: “The fact that a well-known war criminal whose Nazi past was exposed in Canada could live undisturbed for so long in the Hungarian capital, raises serious questions as to the commitment of the Hungarian authorities to hold their own Holocaust criminals accountable.”

Last month, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre launched its “Operation Last Chance II” project in Germany under the slogan “Late But Not Too Late”, offering rewards for information that could help it track down the last surviving Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice.

Among its most wanted is Alois Brunner, a key operative of Adolf Eichmann, last seen in Syria in 2001; and doctor at three concentration camps, Aribert Heim, who disappeared in 1962 and was last seen in Egypt in 1992.

László Csizsik-Csatáry: born Mány, Austria-Hungary 4 March 1915; died Budapest, Hungary 10 August 2013.