Laszlo Csatary, a former Hungarian police officer who was once declared the most-wanted Nazi war criminal and who was indicted in June for his alleged role in the deportation of thousands of Jews to death camps, died Saturday at a hospital in Budapest. He was 98.
The cause was pneumonia, his lawyer, Gabor Horvath, told news agencies.
Csatary had lived for decades in Canada before returning in the mid-1990s to Hungary, where he was located after a manhunt led largely by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Nazi-hunting organization that had placed him at the top of its most-wanted suspects.
At the time of his death, Csatary was entangled in an international legal battle that from the outset seemed unlikely to be resolved within his lifetime. His case reflected the difficulty of rendering justice in crimes nearly seven decades old, after the passage of time had eroded evidence and aged the surviving victims and perpetrators.
“Thirty years ago,” French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld was once quoted as saying, Csatary “would have been 3,500th on the list.”
In Hungary, where Csatary was indicted less than two months ago, a court had suspended the case to protect him from double jeopardy. He was convicted of war crimes in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and sentenced in absentia to death; officials in modern-day Slovakia recently commuted the sentence to life imprisonment and were reportedly considering a request for his extradition.
Csatary denied the accusations brought against him, and the chief Hungarian prosecutor relayed to media outlets his insistence that he had acted during the war on higher orders - a defense commonly mounted by alleged Nazi war criminals.
Efraim Zuroff, an official with the Wiesenthal Center, said at the time of Csatary’s detainment in July 2012 that “when you look at a person like this, you shouldn’t see an old, frail person.”
Instead, Zuroff said, “think of a man who at the height of his physical powers devoted all his energy to murdering or persecuting and murdering innocent men, women and children.”
Laszlo Csizsik-Csatary was born on March 4, 1915, in Many, a small town in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. News accounts offered few details about his life before his enrollment in the Hungarian police.
After the German occupation of Hungary in 1944, Csatary became what the Wiesenthal Center described as a senior police officer and ghetto commandant in Kassa, now the Slovakian city of Kosice.
In May 1944, according to Hungarian prosecutors, he became head of a Jewish internment camp at a brick factory. The authorities accused Csatary of “regularly” wielding a dog whip against his victims “without any special reasons and irrespective of the assaulted people’s sex, age or health condition.”
“I can see him in front of me,” Edita Salamonova, a Holocaust survivor from Kosice once told the Associated Press. “A tall, handsome man but with a heart of stone.”
“He beat whoever he found there with a dog whip,” another survivor told investigators after the war, according to the British newspaper the Independent. “On one occasion he ordered every young girl to come and dig out thick wooden stakes from the ground with their bare hands. Even the SS were scandalized by this.”
Hungarian prosecutors further charged that Csatary had “intentionally assisted the unlawful executions and tortures committed against Jewish people” during the Holocaust. In one instance, he was said to have refused a request from deportees to open ventilation holes in an overpacked train car bound for Auschwitz.
The Wiesenthal Center estimated that Csatary participated in the deportation of approximately 15,700 Jews.
After the war, Csatary went with his wife and two daughters to Canada, where he worked on an assembly line before pursuing a career as an art dealer.
He became a Canadian citizen in 1955, lived for many years in Montreal and Toronto and on at least one occasion vacationed in Florida. A complete list of his survivors was not reported.
Csatary left Canada in 1997 amid charges that he had lied about this wartime past in his citizenship application. He was discovered in Budapest after an informant offered the Wiesenthal Center a tip about his whereabouts and after the Sun, a British tabloid, confronted him at his home.
The tabloid found him in a vest, underwear and socks, according to an account in Der Spiegel. When asked about his past, he said, “No, no. Go away.” He denied having committed any crimes and slammed the door.
“We owe our debt to the Sun,” Zuroff, the Wiesenthal Center official, said, according to the Jerusalem Post. “People may snicker, but the Sun spent thousands of pounds to photograph him and embarrass him. To get a Nazi in prison you have to take a photo of him in his underwear.”