(Published in The New Indian Express on 30 July 2012, retrieved from http://newindianexpress.com/education/school/article579185.ece)
On July 18, the Budapest state attorney placed 97-year-old Laszlo Csatary under house arrest. Csatary, accused of being a Nazi war criminal, was sentenced to death in absentia in Czechoslovakia in 1948, but has been living in hiding and evading arrest for decades. He was finally tracked down by reporters from British tabloid The Sun, to an apartment in an upmarket district of Budapest. He is now on trial for the murder of nearly 16,000 Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust, and faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Who is Csatary?
It is alleged that Csatary, who was a senior officer of the Hungarian gendarmerie of the town of Kassa (which is now Kosice and in Slovakia), organised the deportations of 15,700 to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz in 1944. He has denied the charges. He says he had “only been following orders” and “doing his duty” as a police officer.
The case is being fought by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which was formed in order to track down Nazis who fled Germany and escaped trial after the Allied Forces liberated the camps. Experts have said the evidence against Csatary is very strong, with “strong witness statements” to stand testimony to his brutality.
Authorities have charged Csatary with “unlawful torture of human beings”, saying he supervised the loading of trains bound for death camps in 1944. He is said to have used a dog whip to hit prisoners, and to have refused to cut holes in a compartment to allow people to breathe.
Last year, another Hungarian suspect, Sandor Kepiro, was acquitted of war crime charges for lack of evidence. However, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre says this trial will be different, as witnesses are still alive and willing to testify. There are documents available too, that give evidence of Csatary’s actions.
The successful search for Csatary is part of a controversial operation by the Centre, called ‘Operation Last Chance’ and launched in 2002. This offers monetary rewards in exchange for information leading to the capture of Holocaust criminals.
How did Csatary evade capture so far?
Csatary, who was convicted in absentia at the trials in Czechoslovakia, reached the Canadian province of Nova Scotia the following year. In 1955, he became a Canadian citizen and worked as an art dealer in Montreal.
In 1997, when a deportation hearing was on, after it was alleged that he had failed to tell Canadian authorities about his involvement with the Nazis, he quietly left the country and seems to have settled in Budapest.
It is alleged by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre that Hungarian authorities knew of his whereabouts since 2006, but had done nothing to pursue the war crimes case.
What are the challenges?
Some historians have pointed out that it is strange that Csatary was handed the death sentence when two of his superiors, the Kosice mayor and the police chief, received prison terms. Experts maintain that it will be difficult to prove Csatary knew he was sending people to their deaths.
Hungary is now ruled by the right-wing Citizens Federation (Fidesz) under Victor Orban. In May, a statue of fascist dictator Miklos Horthy, under whom Hungarian authorities deported or killed more than 400,000 Jews in the 1940s, was erected in southwest Hungary. Another statue is due to come up in Budapest.
Writer Jozsef Nyiro, who died in 1953 and was once wanted for a war crimes trial, has been exhumed and reburied in Transylvania with a state funeral.
The state attorney has said the investigation will be difficult because the crime scene is now in another country, and dates back more than half a century.
What is the status now?
There is still hope for the prosecution, as Slovakian historian Zoltan Balassa says he has found the original 1948 Nazi war crimes trial documents for Laszlo Csatary. Hungarian state news agency MTI quoted him as saying, “The National Memory Institute (UPN) archives in Bratislava possess a legal dossier from the death sentence of Laszlo Csatary.”
The documents, which include witness testimony, show that he was in charge of a brick factory that served as an internment camp for Jews, where he “persecuted people because of their ethnic origin, religion or ideology.” Witnesses said he routinely abused his powers, personally participated in torture, and ordered his subordinates to be cruel to the Jews.
Csatary is scheduled to make a court appearance on Tuesday. He is said to be cooperating with the investigation, and is believed to be in good mental and physical health.
The historical context
When Allied Forced invaded Germany and Adolf Hitler shot himself, other members of the Nazi party fled Germany. However, in the hunt launched after the war, most of the top officials were captured and sentenced in the famous Nuremberg Trials of November 1945. Of the 22 men tried – one in absentia – 18 were found guilty. Of them, 11 were hanged to death.
But many of the Nazis who participated in the Holocaust escaped, and some are still believed to be at large. There are several conspiracy theories and leaked documents that suggest several countries, including the Soviet Union, America and England, harboured Nazi war criminals, using their skills as spies or scientists during the Cold War. Many of the others lived under false identities in South America, especially Argentina.
However, efforts to find and capture them continue. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre has spearheaded the search. Now headed by Efraim Zuroff, the Centre is dedicated to finding and charging the last surviving Nazis, and bringing them to trial. The Centre was founded by Simon Wiesenthal, a Ukrainian-born Jew and concentration camp survivor. Having lost 89 members of his extended family in the Holocaust, he dedicated his life to hunting down the Nazis.
On August 8, 1945, the four powers occupying Germany – United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France – signed a charter creating the International Military Tribunal, for the trial of Nazi war criminals.
The Nuremberg Trials opened on November 20, 1945, and went on for months. The tribunal completed sentencing on October 1, 1946.
Twelve defendants were sentenced to death. These included Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Goering. One of the twelve, Martin Bormann, had disappeared and was sentenced in absentia.. in 1972, a long-buried body was identified as that of Bormann. Seven defendants were given prison terms, while three were acquitted.
Famous Nazi war criminals
Aribert Heim or ‘Doctor Death’
The most-wanted suspect by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre is Aribert Heim, an Austrian-born doctor, who will be 98 if he’s still alive.
His nickname was a result of experiments he carried out at the concentration camps at Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Mauthausen. This included amputations without anaesthesia, vivisections, and unnecessary surgery. He is said to have used a human skull as a paperweight, and made seat coverings out of human skin. He is believed to have personally murdered 300 people.
Though arrested once, he was released and went on to practise medicine. Later, when Holocaust survivors detailed his crimes, a warrant was issued for his arrest, but he fled the country even as the police awaited his arrival at his home in 1962.
He now has a bounty of $448,000 on his head. His family claims he died in 1992, of cancer, in Egypt, where he was supposedly living under the name Tarek Hussein Farid. However, they have been unable to provide a death certificate, and several sightings of Heim have been reported. German police who visited Cairo in 2009 found no evidence of Heim’s death.
Known as ‘Todesengel ‘ or ‘The Angel of Death’, Mengele was a doctor in the Auschwitz camp, where he would determine who was to be gassed and who was to be held for labour, in addition to performing experiments on inmates, including children.
He is said to have been especially interested in twins. Many Holocaust survivors recount that he has a friendly manner and would introduce himself as “Uncle Mengele” and distribute sweets to children, before taking them away for experimentation. Witnesses say he would often shoot them himself, after conducting painful experiments. He supervised the sewing together of twins to “create” conjoined twins.
He fled Germany and lived in South America, where he evaded capture for the rest of his life. He died in São Paulo, Brazil, at the age of 67.
Otto Adolf Eichmann
One of the most-wanted Nazi war criminals, Eichmann facilitated the mass deportation of Jews to extermination camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe. He fled to Argentina, where he lived under a false identity. He was finally captured by Mossad and Shin agents in Buenos Aires, as he was returning from work at a Mercedes –Benz factory in 1960, when he was 54 years old.
The capture created an international furore. He was quite literally kidnapped by the agents. He was then taken to a safe house, drugged to appear drunk, smuggled out of Argentina on board a plane, by Mossad agents dressed as flight attendants. Argentina protested against “the violation of its sovereign rights”. After a debate in the United Nations Security Council, Israel and Argentina agreed to end their dispute with a joint statement.
The method of Eichmann’s capture was to have no bearing on his trial. He was tried in an Israeli court on 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was found guilty and hanged to death 1962.
Known as ‘The Butcher of Lyon’, Barbie, who is said to have “enjoyed physically torturing prisoners, including children”, went on to work as a secret agent for the British and then for the Americans. He was captured in 1983, tried, found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 1991.
Found by the Wiesenthal Centre in 2011, Kepiro, a former captain in a special security force, was alleged to have been involved in a 1942 raid in the northern Serbian town of Novi Sad, while resulted in the death of over one thousand Jews.
However, he was acquitted for lack of evidence. He was very ill during the trial, and had to be hospitalised during the proceedings. He was very hard of hearing, and sat in a wheelchair when he attended court sessions.
He died a natural death in September 2011, aged 97, as the prosecution appealed the ruling.