Magazine article Foreign Policy

Closing the Books: Should the World's 'Last Nazi Hunter' Give Up the Chaise?

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Closing the Books: Should the World's 'Last Nazi Hunter' Give Up the Chaise?

Article excerpt

On a Saturday in August 2013, a 98-year-old man named Laszlo Csatary died in a hospital in Budapest, Hungary. The cause was pneumoma, his lawyer later confirmed. At the time of his death, Csatary was facing charges that nearly 70 years ago he "intentionally assisted the unlawful executions and tortures committed against Jewish people" in the Holocaust.

In 1944, Csatary--a police officer from a village near Budapest--was serving in the northeastern city of Kassa as commandant of an internment camp where, with the help of Hungarian police, the German Gestapo was rounding up thousands of Jews for deportation. According to prosecutors, Csatary was particularly zealous in this task. His indictment alleged that he "regularly beat the interned Jews with his bare hands and whipped them with a dog whip." When a freight train bound for the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp stopped in Kassa to collect Jews, Csatary is said to have "prohibited cutting windows" into the train's stifling wagons.

After the war, Csatary disappeared. Tried in absentia and sentenced to death by a Czechoslovak court in 1948, he managed to avoid authorities and live quietly as an art dealer in Canada for nearly SO years. When Canadian authorities identified him in 1997, he fled again and faded from public sight--until he was found, finally, in Hungary more than a decade later.

Media outlets the world over carried news of Csatary's death. He was "one of the last remaining Holocaust war crimes suspects," the BBC reported. His name "figured prominently on an authoritative list of suspected Nazi war criminals," underscored the New York Times.

Two days later, Efraim Zuroff--author of that "authoritative list" and the man largely responsible for tracking down Csatary--sat in his modest office in Jerusalem, feeling spent. "This Csatary death just totally exhausted me," Zuroff sighed over the phone. He had spent the morning fielding calls from reporters and people claiming to have information about other Nazis on the lain.

Zuroff is the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), a Los Angeles-based, multimillion-dollar Jewish human rights organization. More often, though, Zuroff goes by something flashier: "chief Nazi hunter" or "last Nazi hunter." For some three decades, Zuroff, 65, has solicited and cataloged information on alleged Nazis living freely around the world. He has then helped find them and campaigned for their prosecution.

Zuroff's hunt for Csatary began in September 2011, when he received an email from an anonymous source in Hungary offering information in exchange for money. The two agreed on a price, and the source handed over Csatary's Budapest address. (Zuroff will not identify his source or how much the SWC paid him.)

Weeks later, Zuroff met with a Hungarian prosecutor and turned over the information: "We said, 'Listen, we are almost sure this is him.... So confirm it and let us know and bring him to justice.'" After authorities told him that Csatary had indeed been found, Zuroff hurried to prepare a list of potential witnesses: Holocaust survivors who had spent time in Kassa (now called Kosice and located in present-day Slovakia). Then, in April 2012, Zuroff put Csatary at the top of his annual, much-cited "Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals" list--giving the suspected war criminal more notoriety than ever and putting the heat on Hungarian prosecutors to act.

When authorities still did not move as quickly as Zuroff wanted, he turned to the Sun, a British tabloid (famed for its buxom "Page 3" girls) with an average daily circulation of just over 2 million. Zuroff had worked with Sun investigators before, sending them information about flailing cases and hoping the paper would kick up some dust.

The Sun sent a team to track Csatary. One day, Zuroff explained with a chuckle, "they knocked on his door, and he came to the door in his underwear, and they photographed him. …

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