WHEN 97-YEAR-OLD Hungarian Laszlo Csatary was finally found this month, and
committed to house arrest in the Budapest apartment where
he had been living undisturbed for over a decade, it gave
hope to all those who still demand a reckoning with the world’s
surviving Nazi war criminals.
Csatary is accused of torturing Jewish prisoners when he was a police commander
in the town of Kosice during the second World War, and of
sending thousands of Jews to their deaths in Ukraine and
at Auschwitz. Kosice, now in Slovakia, was under Hungarian
control during the war.
A Czechoslovak court sentenced Csatary
to death in 1948, but he fled to Canada and lived as an art
dealer in Montreal and Toronto until his past was revealed
Facing deportation, he left Canada
two years later and is believed to have lived in Budapest
He was found through a tip-off to
the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which is named after the Holocaust
survivor who helped catch the likes of Adolf Eichmann, the
main organiser of the so-called Final Solution, and Franz
Stangl, SS commander of the death camps at Sobibor and Treblinka.
After Wiesenthal died in 2005, the
mantle of world’s leading Nazi hunter passed to Efraim Zuroff,
a New York-born Israeli who has spent three decades tracking
down war criminals around the globe.
Zuroff leads the Wiesenthal Centre’s
search for men like Csatary, who topped the wanted list of
its Operation Last Chance, which calls on governments to
do more to find former Nazis and offers a reward of up to
€25,000 for information leading to the prosecution of war
criminals ( operationlastchance.org).
“We subject tip-offs to three tests
before we act: How credible is the information? Is the person
concerned alive and can they be brought to justice? And have
they ever previously been prosecuted for this crime?” Zuroff
told The Irish Times.
He complains about a lack of funds,
insists that he has no help from Israeli or other state agencies
and jokes that “only in dreams” does he have a team of investigators
on hand to identify, track and build cases against Nazi war
But he says the main impediment to
prosecutions is the unwillingness of many countries to seriously
investigate the crimes that their people committed in collaboration
with or under the duress of their Nazi occupiers. He aims
particularly sharp criticism at Austria, the Baltic states
“We will not go to local authorities
first. We will try and verify information ourselves and then
present the case to the authorities. I can’t trust them not
to bury it,” said Zuroff.
“I am one-third detective, one-third
historian, and one-third political lobbyist. I have to find
the person, gather evidence and create the political will
to act where often political will doesn’t exist.”
When investigating a tip-off, Zuroff
uses local people “who are sympathetic to our cause” to verify
information. “Often they are not professionals ,” he said.
“We try to get pros but we don’t always have them.”
Zuroff is also fighting a losing battle
with time. The men on his most-wanted list are in their late
eighties and nineties, and suspects often die while under
investigation or during the trial process. Zuroff reluctantly
admits that the two men who for years were at the top of
the Wiesenthal Centre’s list are now almost certainly dead:
Austrians Alois Brunner and Aribert Heim.
Brunner was a key assistant to Eichmann,
and deported tens of thousands of Jews to death camps before
escaping to Syria.
For decades the Assad dynasty blocked
efforts to find him, although he is believed to have lost
an eye and several fingers to letter bombs sent by Mossad,
the Israeli intelligence service, to his home in Damascus,
where he is thought to have lived under the pseudonym of
Dr Georg Fischer.
Heim was a doctor who served at several
Nazi concentration camps and became notorious for conducting
gruesome experiments on prisoners. His son says he lived
as Tarek Hussein Farid in Cairo until his death in 1992.
“I can’t close those cases because there’s no forensic evidence
to prove that they are dead. But it’s almost completely clear
that they are dead,” said Zuroff. “We are working against
the odds and against the clock. We’re doing our best to find
who we can.”
Hungarian prosecutors who questioned
Csatary say he denied his guilt but showed “an attitude toward
some of his fellow men of a certain religion . . . that is
not what we would consider normal.” Zuroff was not surprised.
“I’ve been doing this for 32 years,”
he said, “and I’ve never encountered a single Nazi who expressed
regret or remorse for what they did.”