A war criminal in Budapest: The case of László Csatáry
I subscribe to Google Alerts for news on Hungary that I might not otherwise find, and in the last day or so I have been flooded with links to the László Csatáry case. I must have read at least a dozen descriptions of the career of the former police officer who was in charge of the Kassa/Košice ghetto in 1944. Most of the accounts agree on the essentials. He was instrumental in sending 300 so-called alien Jews to Kamenetz-Podolsk in Ukraine in 1941 where the deportees were murdered by the Germans. And he engaged in acts of extreme cruelty in the Jewish ghetto.
In Kassa two ghettos were set up, one in the center of the city and another in the outskirts of Kassa in a brickyard. This latter ghetto also housed Jewish citizens from the surrounding villages. They numbered 15,700, and according to the articles I read only 450 managed to survive the deportation to Auschwitz.
The mayor of Kassa was a rabid Hungarian Nazi who received eager help from the local police force, including László Csatáry, a high-level police officer who was put in charge of the brickyard. Csatáry’s cruelty was infamous already at the time; news of his cruelty even reached Mrs. Horthy.
Csatáry has the dubious distinction of being mentioned by Randolph L. Braham in his monumental The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary. According to Braham there is a detailed eyewitness account of events in Kassa and of Csatáry’s cruelty that appeared in Menóra-Egyenlőség (June 1, 1984), a Canadian publication. Moreover, Braham himself has a few relevant documents on Csatáry in his possession.
As the Soviet troops were advancing László Csatáry with many others retreated with the German and the Hungarian armies, ending up in Germany. From there he emigrated to Canada in 1949. First he settled in Nova Scotia and later in Montreal where he was an art dealer. By the 1990s he lived in Toronto. Whether he used his own name when he entered Canada is unclear, but he didn’t tell the truth about his citizenship and his criminal record to the Canadian immigration authorities. He claimed to be a Yugoslav citizen. Moreover, a year before, in 1948, he was condemned to death in absentia in Czechoslovakia.
He lived undisturbed in Canada until 1997 when it was discovered that he had provided false information about his nationality and had failed to provide information concerning his collaboration with Nazi occupation forces while serving with the Royal Hungarian Police. As a result, the Canadian government revoked his citizenship on August 28, 1997. As deportation proceedings were under way, Csatáry voluntarily left the country. In October 1997, when officials of the Canadian Justice Department’s war crimes unit went to Csatáry’s home, his daughter told them he was living in Europe.
Although the daughter didn’t say anything specific about her father’s whereabouts, it looks as if Csatáry settled in Hungary. He lived undisturbed in Budapest for the last 15 years, until a few days ago when a couple of reporters from the British tabloid, The Sun, found him in a “smart section of Buda.”
At this point the story becomes a bit muddled. Ephraim Zuroff, the current head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, received information from “a paid informant” that Csatáry was living in Hungary. According to one account the informant will receive $25,000, but only when Csatáry is convicted. Because Csatáry is now 97 years old and because the Hungarian judicial system is exceedingly slow, I have the suspicion that “the very reliable informant” will never receive his bounty.
When did Zuroff inform the Hungarian authorities about Csatáry’s whereabouts? It is hard to say, but I found one source that claims that the Hungarians were told about Csatáry’s Hungarian sojourn already in 2006. In September 2011 Zuroff even gave them Csatáry’s Budapest address. Nothing happened, and the frustrated Zuroff turned to The Sun, whose reporters broke the story. According to one report Zuroff and The Sun have cooperated on several cases hunting down war criminals. Zuroff’s aim was to bring the case to the attention of the public because it was becoming obvious that the Hungarian prosecutors had no intention of bringing charges against Csatáry any time soon, if at all.
The spokesman for the prosecutor’s office announced that the investigation has been under way but added that collecting all the facts surrounding a crime that was committed 68 years ago is a very lengthy affair, especially since the witnesses are scattered all over the world. Moreover, the scene of the crime, Kassa/Košice, today belongs to Slovakia.
According to Zuroff, the Wiesenthal Center “last week submitted new evidence to the prosecutor in Budapest regarding crimes committed during World War II by its No. 1 Most Wanted suspect László Csatáry.” This new evidence is “related to Csatáry’s key role in the deportation of approximately 300 Jews from Košice to Kamenetz-Podolsk, Ukraine, where almost all were murdered in the summer of 1941.” The Hungarian prosecutors promised to investigate this evidence as well.
All this couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Hungarian government. The Orbán government is under fire at the moment because of its tacit approval of an emerging Horthy cult and because of its foolish identification with far-right anti-Semitic writers of the interwar period. László Kövér, speaker of the house, got disinvited by his counterpart in the Israeli knesset because Kövér sponsored the reburial of József Nyirő in Romania. In a great hurry Kövér was replaced by the new Hungarian president, János Áder.
While Áder was amiably chatting with the Israeli president Shimon Peres, the leading Israeli paper Haaretz ran an article entitled “Israel has a tough time finding a Hungarian leader not identified with anti-Semites.” Haaretz learned that “Hungarian President János Áder also participated in a ceremony honoring an anti-Semitic artist convicted of war crimes during the Holocaust.” The person in question was Albert Wass, “a nationalistic anti-Semitic writer found guilty of murdering Jews.” According to the paper Áder attended an unveiling ceremony of a Wass memorial in 2008.
And now the clear implication that the Hungarian authorities, although they have known that László Csatáry lived in Budapest for six years, failed to bring charges against him. All in all, it doesn’t look good. Actually, it looks very, very bad.