Seven decades after he allegedly organized the deportation of 15,700 Jews to Auschwitz, 58 years after he lied to immigration officials to become a Canadian citizen, and a year after his arrest in Hungary, Nazi war crimes suspect Laszlo Csatary died Saturday in Budapest.
One of a rapidly dwindling number of surviving Nazi commanders, the 98-year-old Mr. Csatary was waiting to stand trial for his role in sending Jews from the Hungarian city of Kassa (now Kosice in Slovakia) to the notorious Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland in 1944. At that time, he was a Hungarian police officer.
Csatary was arrested in July 2012, when police found him living in Budapest after being tipped off by information from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which tracks and advocates for the arrest of Nazi war criminals.
The arrest brought an end to a 65-year chase for Csatary, which began in 1948 when a Czechoslovakian court sentenced him to death for mass murder – though his whereabouts were then unknown.
By then, authorities later learned, Csatary had already fled Hungary. In 1949, he immigrated to Canada, where he told officials he was a Yugoslavian and that his last name was Csizsik. Six years later, the Canadian government granted him citizenship.
Csatary remained in Canada, working as an art dealer in Toronto and Montreal, until the mid-1990s, when the Canadian government launched an investigation into allegations that he had lied about his past. In 1997, his citizenship was revoked.
As deportation proceedings began, Csatary fled the country, once again eluding arrest. The case lay dormant for more than a decade until tips from the Wiesenthal Center, which had placed Csatary at the top of its “most wanted” list for Nazi war criminals, led Hungarian authorities to reopen their investigation.
Meanwhile, the media also took a keen interest in the case. In July 2012, a reporter from the British tabloid The Sun knocked on the door of the two-bedroom Budapest apartment where Csatary was allegedly living.
Csizsik-Csatary, who speaks English with a Canadian accent after decades living in Montreal and Toronto, answered the door in just socks and underpants.
When we asked if he could justify his past, he looked shocked and stammered “No, no. Go away.” Questioned about his deportation case in Canada he answered angrily in English: “No, no. I don’t want to discuss it.” Our reporter asked: “Do you deny doing it? A lot of people died as a result of your actions.”
He replied: “No I didn’t do it, go away from here,” before slamming the door.
Days later, Csatary was placed under house arrest, though the case against him was complicated by questions of whether it constituted double jeopardy – since a court technically convicted him in 1948. When he died Saturday of pneumonia, a court in Slovakia – the site of the original conviction – was in the process of deciding where he should serve his life sentence, Bloomberg reports.
"This is a very unfortunate end to a saga that lasted far too long," said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, in an interview with CNN Monday. "Csatary should have been brought to justice shortly after the war.... We gave the Hungarian prosecutors evidence two years ago, and this should have been taken care of months ago in Budapest."
Csatary joins a small number of other alleged Nazi war criminals tracked down and prosecuted across Europe in their old age. In May, for instance, German police arrested 93-year-old Hans Lipschis, alleged to be a longtime Auschwitz guard (and also among the Wiesenthal Center’s most wanted).
Mr. Lipschis’s case reopened an old debate about the culpability of mid-level functionaries in the Nazi system, who frequently argue they were simply following orders in carrying out acts that were or led to mass murder. For his part, Csatary simply denied the charges against him.
At least one Holocaust survivor from Kosice, however, said she has never forgotten Csatary or his role in the murder of her family and community.
“I can see him in front of me,” Edita Salamonova said to The Associated Press last year. “A tall, handsome man but with a heart of stone.”